Superb volume more Chekhov than Carver
The Promise: Stories By Tony Birch UQP, 232pp, $22.95 A DECADE ago, the short story was flailing as a literary genre. It was almost impossible to get up a collection in Australia, and the form, so long a forte in Australian literature (Henry Lawson, Peter Carey, Helen Garner and Frank Moorhouse are a few who spring to mind), had largely been consigned to the literary journals.
In recent years, however, the Australian short story has enjoyed a full-blown renaissance. Cate Kennedy, Nam Le and Maria Takolander are just some examples of writers who have flourished in the short form. Tony Birch’s first two books, Shadow Boxing, a series of interlinked stories about a boy growing up in Fitzroy during the 1960s, and Father’s Day, are part of this renaissance too. They were followed in 2012 by his powerful debut novel, Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.
In The Promise, Birch returns to the short story with great aplomb. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a collection of stories (non-interlinked)
April 26-27, 2014 that hang together as well as this. Birch is no great innovator in terms of narrative tactics, but the freshness and clear-eyed compassion of these stories make that irrelevant.
Like its predecessors, the 12 tales in The Promise are primarily of damaged and/or unspectacular men and their children. Birch treats his characters with humour and empathy without losing focus on their folly. He works against the cheap hyperbole so often seen in literature of the battlers that either makes characters sentimental heroes or, more often, reduces characters already shrunken by life to a kind of animalistic indifference that operates to firm the borders between us and them.
That turf has been too well-travelled in the realist short story, ever since Raymond Carver built a legend around his tales of banal tragedy, rehab clinics and alcohol-damaged relationships. But with Birch’s superb ear for the vernacular, these vignettes never seem too heavy.
The collection is remarkably even. Highlights are likely to be personal. The title story deals with an Aboriginal man and his inheritance of a house from his god-loving grandfather and what happens after he blows his marriage to a farmer’s daughter through an unceasing fondness for the drink. The conclusion is one of the moments in this collection where Birch lets go of his realist underpinnings. Paradoxically, perhaps, it shows the extent of control he has over his writing.
An interesting parallel can be found in the opening story, China, where a man revisits the moment in his life when he failed to take a risk and escape with his first love from a country town and her parents’ opposition. It echoes the story of Phillip Gwynne’s novel Deadly, Unna?, adapted into the film Australian Rules.
The opening of China exemplifies Birch’s command of the Australian vernacular, not just the idiom but its unique cadences: I never stopped loving China. We got together in the summer we turned seventeen and spent warm nights under the pier drinking cider and smoking weed. Some nights we walked the back roads to the ocean and lay naked in the dunes looking up at the stars. One night China rolled her salty skin onto me, dropped warm tears on my shoulder and asked that we pray our love would last. I told her there was no need for prayers. As it was I didn’t believe in any god, but swore we’d always be together. I really did believe we’d make it, as long as I could stay out of trouble, which wouldn’t be easy. I’d been f..king up since I started high school, and was forever deep in shit, with teachers and the local police.
Other stories have an urban setting. The Money Shot is a humorous account of two petty criminals, whose confederate brings his baby along on a low-rent honeypot sting. Sticky Fingers tells the story of a teenager’s marble championship play-off in Fitzroy in the 1960s and of attempts to use The Beatles’ dolorous Let it Be as a secret weapon. It captures the intensity of such boyhood competitions superbly at the same time as it provides humorous reflection.
Another boyhood story, this time set in the outer suburbs, is The Toecutters, in which two friends explore the river near their home as it shrinks with the progress of urban development. The outer burbs also feature in Snare, where a loner kid encounters the Islander gang that rules his school.
There are echoes of Carver’s story Fat in The Lovers, which is narrated by a restaurant waiter. However, the collection as a whole feels more like Chekhov than Carver. There’s a lightness and deftness of touch to The Promise that Car-