Sketches from a neigh­bour­hood watch

The Lo­cal Wildlife

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Bar­rett David Bar­rett

By Robert Drewe Hamish Hamil­ton, 256pp, $29.99 (HB) OBERT Drewe be­gan his writ­ing life as a cadet re­porter with The West Aus­tralian news­pa­per. In The Shark Net (2000), a mem­oir of Drewe’s youth writ­ten in the shadow of Perth se­rial killer Eric Cooke, he wrote about those early days as a keen young jour­nal­ist as­signed to cover the city’s western sub­urbs. Bored with col­lat­ing the re­sults of ob­scure sports events — lo­cal lacrosse, bad­minton and royal ten­nis — Drewe walked the streets look­ing for news. Ev­ery day for a month he caught a bus into the sub­urbs, picked a street, knocked on a door and asked a be­mused house­holder for a story.

In the 50 years since that time Drewe has writ­ten six nov­els, three mem­oirs and two plays. The pub­li­ca­tion of The Body­surfers (1983) — an Aus­tralian clas­sic still in print af­ter three decades — and two fur­ther col­lec­tions also es­tab­lished him as a mas­ter of the short story. With this new book, The Lo­cal Wildlife, the for­mer news­pa­per re­porter has gone back to the streets in search of sto­ries, but this time on the far north coast of NSW.

The Lo­cal Wildlife is a col­lec­tion of 61 sketches based on peo­ple and places — and flora and fauna — in the North­ern Rivers re­gion where Drewe now lives. Some of the pieces — Drewe refers to them var­i­ously as sketches, tales and anec­dotes — were pub­lished ini­tially in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. But that’s not to say they are of­f­cuts swept from a crafts­man’s floor. This is a fully re­alised book and a riot to read.

There is a freedom avail­able to Drewe here that would not be avail­able in fic­tion. While bor­row­ing heav­ily from the short story and the de­vices of fic­tion, the anec­do­tal form al­lows Drewe to loosen his plot­lines and ex­press his per­son­al­ity di­rectly to the reader. Drewe ex­ploits this freedom to great ef­fect. He writes about snakes, birds, dogs and an­gry neigh­bours — even about a two-headed croc­o­dile — and re­lies on the force of his per­son­al­ity as a writer to hold it all to­gether.

He is great com­pany in th­ese pages. The book’s tone is warm and con­ver­sa­tional, and Drewe re­mains open to the wide (and of­ten weird) va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences avail­able in the re­gion. He vis­its the lo­cal rodeo and the mu­nic­i­pal pool; he goes to par­ties and book club meet­ings; he learns facts about the dung beetle and cane toad. When a neigh­bour’s al­paca is killed, Drewe’s 16-year-old dog stands ac­cused — de­spite the fact she is so old she can hardly stand up.

There are beau­ti­fully ren­dered im­ages. At one point a body of wa­ter is de­scribed as ‘‘ dark as a blood test’’. Green cap­sicums washed up mys­te­ri­ously on a beach are not much more than ‘‘ air with a glossy jacket’’. Else­where, a boy swim­ming at the pool has lightly freck­led skin ‘‘ like fly-spots on a win­dowsill’’.

In his best work Drewe sum­mons com­plex worlds from sim­ple in­ci­dents. He can do this with very few words. Some­times two sen­tences are enough. Black Lake is one of the early pieces from The Lo­cal Wildlife. It be­gins: A young woman with a badly scarred face and a baby be­gan chat­ting to me down at Lake Ainsworth af­ter I spot­ted a tree snake climb­ing into her pic­nic bas­ket. She threw one of her thongs at the snake and it es­caped up the near­est tea-tree, and we started talk­ing.

Noth­ing could be sim­pler. A man and a woman are drawn into con­ver­sa­tion by an in­ci­dent with a cu­ri­ous tree snake. But why is this woman’s face scarred? Why is she alone with her baby? Th­ese de­tails sum­mon a dark world be­neath the wa­ter’s still sur­face.

Most of th­ese sketches stand alone, but there are some run­ning nar­ra­tives that link sev­eral tales. There is an amus­ing com­men­tary on a dis­pute be­tween res­i­dents that be­gan when Butch, a neigh­bour­hood dog, at­tacked an el­derly canine, Splodge. There are also tales about Bren­dan, a macadamia farmer who finds love with the help of the in­ter­net and lots of luck. Drewe watches th­ese events with an ea­ger eye, of­ten from the pub. But in set­ting them down he care­fully avoids judg­ment.

Drewe’s at­ti­tude to­wards the peo­ple he meets is al­ways gen­er­ous. Drop­ping in at his friend Trevor’s nut farm, he falls into con­ver­sa­tion with Des­tiny, Trevor’s part­ner. She is also a ‘‘ spir­i­tual-growth prac­ti­tioner’’ who ‘‘ bal­ances neg­a­tive en­er­gies for a liv­ing’’. Em­pa­thy and bliss, we read, are Des­tiny’s spe­cial­ties. On re­ceiv­ing a baf­fling ac­count of this type of work, Drewe writes: ‘‘ Much of this went over my ig­no­rant prag­matic head. But I don’t mock em­pa­thy and bliss, I’m in favour of them, and I told Des­tiny so.’’ This rings true. Drewe is will­ing to lis­ten to peo­ple and get gen­uinely in­ter­ested in their lives.

Drewe’s month-long door-knock­ing mis­sion in Perth’s western sub­urbs in the early 1960s un­cov­ered only two sto­ries. One was about a labrador re­leased from the dog pound and saved from death. The other was about an el­derly pri­mary school cleaner who took over coach­ing du­ties for the girls’ soft­ball team. Drewe wrote in The Shark Net that this was pretty poor stuff, even for a cadet jour­nal­ist very new to the job.

But he has been wildly suc­cess­ful with the North­ern Rivers lo­cals. In­deed, by keep­ing his eyes and ears open he has shown the best sto­ries of­ten turn up when you’re not look­ing for them. The Lo­cal Wildlife is a book made from the ba­sic ma­te­ri­als of daily life. It shows Drewe knows his craft well enough to turn what­ever he sees and hears into great sto­ries that grab the reader’s shirt­sleeves.

Robert Drewe

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