Ad­just­ing to the un­fa­mil­iar

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

literary critic.

BE­NEATH THE PURE RUSH OF STORY, A GHOST NAR­RA­TIVE RUNS

Nov­el­ist Tony Birch sets him­self an am­bi­tious task

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