Adjusting to the unfamiliar
Ghost River By Tony Birch UQP, 304pp, $29.95
‘Ido not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god’’ wrote TS Eliot of the Mississippi in the unsurpassable opening of the third of his Four Quartets. In The Dry Salvages, Eliot writes of a body of water ‘‘sullen, untamed and intractable’’. He condemns the mind which treats the river as merely useful, ‘‘a problem confronting the builder of bridges’’, an engineering question to be solved.
Eliot, that driest and dustiest of high Anglicans, makes a curious animist: but in this poem he fights with both fists for some older, grander sense of the Mississippi and its power. He regards the river as one forgotten by the utilitarian mind — those ‘‘dwellers of cities’’ — while remaining implacable: “Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder / Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated / By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.’’
Which brings us to the Yarra near Melbourne’s glorious and grimy Collingwood, where two Aboriginal boys, outsiders both, become friends and bond through their relationship with the river over one long summer in the late 1960s. Tony Birch’s Ghost River, his second novel, takes a particular historical moment — when Melbourne’s huge Eastern Freeway began its march, destroying as it went some of the natural course of the Yarra and much of the physical history of the Wurundjeri people who had lived along its course since, well, forever — and makes of it a Boy’s Own adventure, a social critique, and something more elusive still.
Birch, despite his resolute descriptions of outsider status, is no stranger to Ozlit. His 2011 debut novel, Blood, and his three collections of short stories beginning with Shadowboxing in 2006, were met with well-deserved praise. They suggested a ground-level talent, one whose merit emerged from the way it raised primary human experience over the fussy abstractions of official literature, though the innocence of the authorial eye was always something of a fudge. Birch is a sophisticated writer: technically adroit even at his most raw, mindful of the anti-canon from which his own work emerges, he nonetheless reserves the right to deal in his chosen subject matter with a simplicity and intermittent grace that has no ideological grounds beyond the desire to allow a story to tell itself.
Sonny Brewer and Charlie ‘‘Ren’’ Renwick are natural aristocrats in a society that regards them as bottom of the heap. The first is a born warrior who manages to get himself expelled from the local high school for punching a sadistic teacher; the latter is a dreamer, a watcher of the skies who identifies obsessively with birds. Together they make a fine, albeit feral, pair who escape their tumbledown workers’ cottages at every opportunity for the green belt around the river, to smoke roll-ups, swim and bullshit each other, and generally treat the place as though it belonged to them alone.
But this is no Eden — the river is polluted and dangerous — and the boys are not alone. In the opening pages they meet a group of downand-outs, all of them black, who live in a temporary shelter beside the river. The group’s leader is a failed boxer (though we later learn that the failure wasn’t his fault) named Tex, whose glaucous eyes judge the boys with eerie exactitude before welcoming them to the camps as helpmates and apprentices.
In the months that follow, Tex and his band provide the boys with an alternative education. The wisdom they impart is not tribal — the men are too damaged, too alienated from a specific understanding of their past for that — but it carries a distinct orientation towards the world: The river men told prison stories, drinking stories, lost dog stories, and tales of their years on the road. Ren was a good listener and quickly understood there were strict rules governing how a story was told and listened to. Interjections were occasionally allowed, by way of a jeer or a hand shooting into the air, requesting a point-of-order. Big Tiny was the most common culprit in that regard. Other stories were sacred, recited in hushed tones and observed in silence, except for the crack and groan of the fire.
This joyous, good-humoured, ethically informed yarn-spinning includes tales of the river. The men recall aspects of law surrounding the Yarra, and they inculcate in Sonny and Ren a fuller respect for its power, one that starts with the area’s deep geological history but soon shades into a kind of natural theology: ‘‘This is a story from the other time when this river she did not end where she is today. There weren’t no boats for travel back then. And there weren’t no bay at the end of the river. The land was full and the river was a giant. Then one time more water come and stayed. Years and years of rain. The land filled up and there was the bay that come, drowning the old river.’’ He stomped the ground again. ‘‘But she’s still there, under this one. The old ghost river.’’ He poked the stick into the ground and drew a swirling snake. ‘‘This is her. And when a body dies on the river, it goes on down, down, to the ghost river. Waiting. If the spirit of the dead one is true, the ghost river, she holds the body to her heart. If the spirit is no good, or weak, she spews it back. Body come up. Simple as that.’’
At which point, the reader can be fairly sure that Tex’s claim will soon be tested. As the boys are reclaimed by school and, following Sonny’s expulsion, work — and as their respective domestic situations buckle and strain under poverty and an obliquely registered yet omnipresent racism — larger forces get to work.
Soon a fleet of bulldozers arrives and the business of subduing the land for the F-17 freeway begins in earnest. Ren frets for the future of the camp where Tex and the others are increasingly frail because of their use of methylated spirits — the ‘‘white lady’’ — but Sonny takes more active steps to stop the destruction, an act of sabotage that reverberates through the novel’s latter parts.
Birch licks his world into shape with the rough delicacy of a big cat cleaning its cubs. The oppositions he sets up between white world and black, formal education and street-smarts, family obligation and friendship, law and criminality, Christianity and Aboriginal lore rarely
harden into pure binary, so embedded they are in the pure transcription of event. It is a resolutely external approach that honours through replication the plain-spoken profundity of those fireside stories told by a group of battered but unbowed men — but it is also a deft stylistic decision which avoids granting too much complex interiority to boys of intelligence but limited education.
If Ghost River has a flaw, it is one of ambition: Birch sets so many narrative hares running that he is never going to run them all down. For instance, Della, the mysterious daughter of an abusive lay preacher who moves into the street early on, never deepens as a character in the way that Ren and Sonny do. But no narrative quibble should diminish the central achievement of the work, which is to manage the difficult task of using a Western literary model to approximate an older narrative mode. Beneath the pure rush of story in these pages, a ghost narrative runs.
Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief
BENEATH THE PURE RUSH OF STORY, A GHOST NARRATIVE RUNS
Novelist Tony Birch sets himself an ambitious task