Su­perb vol­ume more Chekhov than Carver

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

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-

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