He’s a work­ing-class fan

The Fol­low­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke Stella Clarke

By Roger McDon­ald Vin­tage, 272pp, $32.95

SINCE 1979, when his best­selling novel 1915 at­tracted at­ten­tion and be­came a seven-part ABC tele­vi­sion se­ries, Roger McDon­ald has pro­duced works un­matched in their ca­pac­ity to bot­tle cer­tain pop­u­lar and imag­i­na­tive di­men­sions of this coun­try, its myths and its his­to­ries. He also has main­tained an un­com­pro­mis­ingly in­di­vid­ual voice, speak­ing a po­tent kind of Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar, in­flected with his own wild and lyri­cal tim­bre.

The Fol­low­ing takes as its rather spec­tral and elu­sive sub­ject an­other his­tor­i­cal trail: the pol­i­tics of work and the na­tion’s union­ist his­tory. As McDon­ald says, enig­mat­i­cally, in his after­word, ‘‘ it is a ghost of La­bor, not La­bor it­self, pro­vid­ing a fo­cus of spir­i­tual at­tach­ment’’, it is ‘‘ a party that has no name’’.

The book sets off with a raw and vivid pas­sage. A poor boy is sent by his feral grand­fa­ther to spot the thieves who are butcher­ing his cat­tle on the rails by night. This boy, Mar­cus Friendly, will grow with the rail­way, as fet­tlers forge its bru­tal, ex­hil­a­rat­ing way through the bush.

Mar­cus’s emo­tional life be­gins early; he is en­rap­tured with two fiercely beau­ti­ful girls from the rail­way-builders’ en­camp­ments. De­spite, or be­cause of, his ori­gins, his ca­reer tra­jec­tory is steep: he will be­come ‘‘ the bloke’’, Aus­tralia’s 16th prime min­is­ter. He will rise on the work­ing­man’s ticket.

The par­a­bola of his po­lit­i­cal as­cent, how­ever, in line with McDon­ald’s eman­ci­pated man­ner of sto­ry­telling, is wrapped up in one para­graph, 80 or so pages in, as Mar­cus watches his big, rough-hewn home un­der con­struc­tion and faces re­tire­ment.

Other lives con­gre­gate in this three-part novel as it pro­ceeds. Book one mainly ex­plores Friendly’s life, his fluc­tu­at­ing re­la­tion­ships, his ideals and his child­hood loves. Book two moves on to three more blokes: Kyle Mor­ri­son, son of a fa­mous poet with a fee­ble grip on a large, sun-blasted home­stead; his em­ployee Ross Devlin; and — most mem­o­rably per­haps — Powys Wig­nall, ex-jacka­roo, ex-Cam­bridge, a com­plex author, in­tent on get­ting it on with a jour­nal­ist half his age. The fi­nal sec­tion moves on again in time, to fo­cus on politi­cian Max Peter­son and a new cast of char­ac­ters. hori­zons of flar­ing sun­sets’’. Beau­ti­ful; the earthy poet of the Tree in Chang­ing Light (2001) is al­ways there among the prose.

McDon­ald is still in love with an iconic past where the call of the land­scape was rau­cous and chal­leng­ing, rudi­men­tary and tough. The Fol­low­ing takes his swash­buck­ling textual sprez­zatura, his nar­ra­tive non­cha­lance, about as far as it will go with­out los­ing more of his au­di­ence than he can af­ford to; be­cause though McDon­ald is rightly the dar­ling of crit­ics and prize-givers, he has been known to lament his fail­ure to con­nect ef­fec­tively with a broader base of read­ers.

He has earned a ‘‘ high lit­er­ary’’ rep­u­ta­tion, the du­bi­ous fate of nov­el­ists at­tuned to the en­er­gies in lan­guage and the de­sire to make it speak mind-pic­tures with more im­me­di­acy than the busi­ness of get­ting the story told nor­mally al­lows. What is true, and what is not, is ren­dered pe­riph­eral to what may be termed the gist of the tale; and which reader wants to be sad­dled with guess­ing?

The Fol­low­ing adopts an om­ni­scient but slip­pery view­point that doesn’t hold a line or an­gle and toys with its dis­tance from the char­ac­ters. It hooks up the three books with ten­u­ous con­nect­ing threads, in­sists on noth­ing, just keeps watch­ing and re­count­ing.

The ad­van­tages of this buoy­ancy in­clude im­bu­ing the story, as it pro­ceeds through its di­vi­sions, and gen­er­a­tions, with panoramic breadth. Its pas­sion­ate the­mat­ics, fo­cused on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and land, man and La­bor, man and mate, man and his­tory, man and woman, man and coun­try, can sing.

There are disad­van­tages, too; it would be a shame if de­mands on the stay­ing power of the reader were to un­der­mine the ap­peal of a novel of­ten in­com­pa­ra­ble in its un­shack­led en­ergy and graphic splen­dour. There are great rolling, brac­ing, gusts of reverie. There is a real re­spect for the mi­nor, webbed his­to­ries of work­ing-class and ru­ral Aus­tralians.

Along with other re­mark­able re­cent works such as Car­rie Tiffany’s Mate­ship with Birds and Gil­lian Mears’s Foal’s Bread, The Fol­low­ing ar­tic­u­lates deep-rooted di­men­sions of Aus­tralian life, lived in the land­scape, with a fresh and in­ven­tive vi­vac­ity. Stay­ing with the zeit­geist, this his­tor­i­cal saga be­haves in un­con­ven­tional ways. You may not glean much of La­bor’s his­tory, but here is writ­ing both highly crafted and lib­er­ated that flares blind­ingly, in­ter­mit­tently and drops us back, some­what dis­ori­ented, look­ing for tracks, with­out apol­ogy.

Roger McDon­ald speaks a po­tent kind of Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar

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