Mem­oirs cut from the same cloth

Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs and Fish­er­women The Bouncer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tim McGuire

By Sarah Drum­mond Fremantle Press, 160pp, $24.99 By Heath Lan­der Finch Pub­lish­ing, 245pp, $24.99

OUR best writ­ers are our best ob­servers. Amer­i­can hu­morist David Sedaris springs to mind as a writer who gen­er­ates per­fectly ar­tic­u­lated so­cial truths through an ap­ti­tude for ob­ser­va­tion. We need writ­ers who are able to iden­tify truths about so­ci­ety, pol­i­tics and in­dus­try. Sarah Drum­mond and Heath Lan­der do just that.

Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs and Fish­er­women is Drum­mond’s first book, writ­ten as a trib­ute to the in­shore and es­tu­ar­ine com­mer­cial fish­ing in­dus­try, and to the men and women whose liveli­hoods de­pend on it.

Set on the wild south coast of Western Aus­tralia, the book fol­lows Drum­mond’s tute­lage un­der a fish­er­man named Salt, her em­ployer and guide to a way of life that is un­der threat, dy­ing of a thou­sand gov­ern­ment cuts.

Drum­mond’s anx­i­ety is that the sto­ries and knowl­edge born of this cul­ture will die as well. She makes an in­tel­li­gent and im­pas­sioned case for their en­durance, framed by her ex­pe­ri­ences at sea, and away from it.

‘‘ Ini­tially, th­ese tales of fisher men and fisher women may ap­pear to read as frag­ments of a day, a life — rip­ping yarns, beau­ti­ful lies and a few home truths,’’ she writes in a nod to the un­tra­di­tional struc­ture of the book. The 62 ‘‘ frag­ments’’ that con­sti­tute this mem­oir are not lin­ear or pre­dictable in con­tent or theme. Each, though, is beau­ti­fully writ­ten, evoca­tive of a fad­ing world, yet mea­sured, the au­thor rein­ing in her ob­vi­ous zeal.

As a teenager, Drum­mond was drawn to beaches and jet­ties and the peo­ple who worked on them. ‘‘ I want to un­der­stand them, to rub through the ve­neer of peo­ple who spend their lives on the wa­ter,’’ she writes. This self­as­sured­ness un­der­pins Salt Story.

‘‘ Land peo­ple will never un­der­stand what sea peo­ple are talk­ing about,’’ she warns.

Heath Lan­der’s de­but book, also a work­place mem­oir, un­folds in an ut­terly dif­fer­ent world. ‘‘ There was lit­tle in my early years to sug­gest I would work in night­club se­cu­rity,’’ he writes early on in The Bouncer.

It’s Lan­der’s fail­ure to con­form to the bouncer stereo­type, how­ever, that makes his story so com­pelling. A stranger him­self to the gritty un­der­belly of Mel­bourne’s nightlife, he is a keen-eyed and and shrewd guide. He re­calls a younger ver­sion of him­self at his first shift at the Royal Ho­tel in the Mel­bourne CBD, wear­ing five shirts to com­pen­sate for his unim­pos­ing physique. A univer­sity grad­u­ate with a ma­jor in sculp­ture and ed­u­ca­tion, he is al­most an ac­ci­den­tal bouncer.

The Royal is the back­drop against which the main events of this mem­oir un­fold. Stand­ing in its door­frame, Lan­der must quickly de­velop two qual­i­ties to sur­vive: the abil­ity to recog­nise and defuse dan­ger, and con­fi­dence in him­self.

Nei­ther is eas­ily gained. The vi­o­lence he de­scribes on and off the streets is stag­ger­ing and paints a grim pic­ture of Mel­bourne af­ter dark. So, too, does it hint at un­com­fort­able truths about binge drink­ing in Aus­tralia.

Lan­der isn’t coy in his retelling of th­ese events and the con­tent is fre­quently con­fronting as a re­sult. He doesn’t ex­ag­ger­ate, though; as it turns out he knows how to ap­ply just the right amount of force.

In the early chap­ters, the vi­o­lence is off­set by wry hu­mour. While on duty, Lan­der is vis­ited by his mother who, he is forced to ex­plain to his col­league, is gay. ‘‘ What­ever cred­i­bil­ity I did have as a hard man

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