He’s a working-class fan
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