Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

To­day I want to talk about two nov­els by newish Aus­tralian writ­ers: David Free’s Get Poor Slow (Pi­cador, 230pp, $29.99) and Michael McGuire's Never a True Word (Wake­field Press, 240pp, $29.99). Free and McGuire are long-time writ­ers. Their newish­ness is in the novel-writ­ing sense. Both books are top­i­cal and en­ter­tain­ing. They touch on an oc­cu­pa­tion that does not make head­lines in lit­er­a­ture: jour­nal­ism.

OK, we have Eve­lyn Waugh’s Scoop, Ge­orge John­ston’s My Brother Jack, Richard Ford’s The Sports­writer and Janet Mal­colm’s The Jour­nal­ist and the Mur­derer, which is non­fic­tion but a near­mas­ter­piece. I still think Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, with an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter at its cen­tre, has the great­est twist end­ing ever writ­ten … but then I haven’t read it since I was 12. By and large, though, jour­nal­ists are not in nov­els as much as are po­lice or psy­chopaths or lawyers. No com­par­a­tive jokes about the mid­dle char­ac­ter please!

I know both authors. Free, who self-pub­lished his first novel, A Danc­ing Bear, in 2007, is a reg­u­lar re­viewer here. I con­tacted him al­most a decade ago af­ter read­ing a scep­ti­cal piece on the Miles Franklin he wrote for Quad­rant. We’ve been in email con­tact since but have not met.

McGuire I have met. He used to work on this news­pa­per. In­deed, I hired him as a re­porter when I was edit­ing the busi­ness pages. That was an eon ago. Alan Bond, Kerry Packer, John El­liott, Nobby Clark, John Spalvins and Christo­pher Skase were run­ning Aus­tralia. McGuire re­turned home to Ade­laide quite a while ago. We are friends. Both he and Free know I will say what I think about their books. And they don’t need me for ex­ces­sive praise any­way, as it adorns their covers. “Grip­ping,” Clive James says of Get Poor Slow. “He writes with the prose of a neu­rotic an­gel.” I’m not 100 per cent sure why that’s a com­pli­ment but there’s no doubt­ing James’s fer­vour for Free. McGuire’s novel is blurbed by the bloke with a tight grip on the Se­nate, Nick Xenophon: “A rol­lick­ing romp and rue­ful ru­mi­na­tion of the art of spin doc­tor­ing.”

This leads to my main in­ter­est in these books. Both are about jobs I do or have done. In­deed I’m sure there’s a bit of me in Get Poor Slow. And I’d not be sur­prised if a few con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with McGuire have found new life in fic­tion.

Free’s satir­i­cal crime noir un­folds at the pointy end of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. The pro­tag­o­nist, Ray Saint, is a free­lance lit­er­ary critic who thinks he’s the smartest per­son in any room. McGuire’s pro­tag­o­nist, known only as Jack, is a dis­il­lu­sioned for­mer jour­nal­ist who works as press sec­re­tary for the South Aus­tralian trea­surer, Ray Sloan. There’s a bit of Paul Keat­ing in Sloan, not least the lean­ness, in­tol­er­ance of stupid peo­ple and foul lan­guage.

McGuire is a jour­nal­ist to­day but his CV in­cludes two years as press sec­re­tary to a SA trea­surer. As it hap­pens, my CV in­cludes a stint as a press sec­re­tary and speech­writer to a se­nior mem­ber of the NSW cab­i­net, the then po­lice min­is­ter Ted Pick­er­ing. My present job is the one oc­cu­pied by Ray Saint’s bene­fac­tor and neme­sis: lit­er­ary edi­tor Jeremy Skeats. More on him soon.

Both books are in part a lament for the rise of dig­i­tal me­dia and the fall of news­pa­pers. TV jour­nal­ism also comes in for a roast­ing. Both authors are ra­zor sharp in their de­pic­tion of jobs I know about. Free’s opens with Saint fac­ing his new daily or­deal: the jour­nal­ists gath­ered out­side his Mel­bourne home, “a gag­gle of drool­ing vil­lagers wait­ing for the mon­strous com­mon en­emy”. They are there be­cause he is the sole sus­pect in the bru­tal mur­der of a young wo­man, a pub­lish­ing as­sis­tant named Jade Howe. He did have sex with her the night be­fore she died. He says he had noth­ing to do with her death but his story is a bit thin. “You dog,” an uniden­ti­fied male caller says to him as he picks up the phone be­fore head­ing out, “You sick, sick, c.... You’re a dead man.”

Saint has to leave home be­cause the po­lice want to talk to him, again. The in­ter­view scenes be­tween Saint and De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Ted Lewis, a tac­i­turn man who dresses like a maths teacher and wears an RSL tie, are bril­liant.

Saint’s track record is not with­out blem­ish. He’s a bit of a boozer, a bit of wom­an­iser. He’s on painkillers. He can quote Thucy­dides but his short-term mem­ory is dodgy. He’s an acidic critic but he has never pub­lished a book him­self. A novel re­jected by ev­ery pub­lisher in town sits in his bot­tom drawer, an­other ca­daver. He loathes the news­pa­per’s chief critic, Bar­rett Lodge, who “says he likes ev­ery­thing, be­cause he’s too sloth­ful to say any­thing else”.

Free lives in the NSW North­ern Rivers. He’s no lit­er­ary in­sider. His char­ac­ters can be seen as amal­gams of real peo­ple. They are so alive on the page. I think there’s a bit of Peter Craven in Ray Saint. “I sound like Richard Burton as Ham­let.” I’m not go­ing to put any names to Bar­rett Lodge, but I love the de­scrip­tion of him as “a badly stuffed mastodon”. Skeats, the lit­er­ary edi­tor, is gym-fit and hand­some, with a full head of hair and a pointil­list beard. He wears nice suits. See, I told you I was in it! He also “knows noth­ing about lit­er­a­ture”, a char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­am­ple of Free’s imag­i­na­tive hu­mour. There’s a hard man ex­crim­i­nal turned best­selling mem­oirist. Chop me dead if you can’t work out who that re­sem­bles. And a mys­tery au­thor who has writ­ten an Aus­tralian epic its pub­lisher thinks will win the Miles Franklin. Saint thinks it’s 1259 pages of crap.

The char­ac­ters come to­gether as Saint tries to prove his in­no­cence … or hide his guilt. Free is a funny, funny writer and this book is a must-read for any­one in pub­lish­ing. It has some bit­ing in­jokes but it doesn’t de­pend on them. It’s a pacy, rib­ald, in­tel­li­gent crime com­edy for any reader.

McGuire’s Never a True Word opens with some­thing I re­mem­ber well: Jack re­ceiv­ing an early morn­ing phone call from a ra­dio pro­gram that wants the min­is­ter on air. The shock jock is “an enor­mous f..kwit” who sees him­self “morally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally su­pe­rior to a low-rent gov­ern­ment spin­ner”. Jack is in his mid-30s, mar­ried with a young daugh­ter. He took the job be­cause jour­nal­ism is dy­ing, the pay is bet­ter and work­ing for a politi­cian can’t be any worse than toil­ing for “the nutjobs mas­querad­ing as edi­tors, chiefs of staffs and sec­tion heads”.

He’s wrong about that. The novel cen­tres on Jack and his col­leagues con­trol­ling their suc­cess­ful but volatile boss in the lead-up to an­other elec­tion. The op­po­si­tion yaps away but the real threat may be a shady prop­erty de­vel­oper who woos politi­cians on his yacht, which is crewed by bikini-clad girls. Or it may just be Sloan him­self, pick­ing a fight he shouldn’t.

McGuire is spot-on about the chasm be­tween what the gov­ern­ment knows and what jour­nal­ists find out. Ev­ery is­sue is an ice­berg and the me­dia sees only the tip. He’s acutely aware of the per­sonal power some politi­cians have. Sloan’s staff are scared of him. He nails the strict rules of en­gage­ment. As I first walked into what would be­come a weekly strat­egy meet­ing run by the premier, my min­is­ter leaned to­wards me and said four words: “You do not speak.”

This is a po­lit­i­cal novel for our times. McGuire needs to work a bit on his di­a­logue and the in­ner lives of his char­ac­ters — there’s a bit too much telling rather than show­ing — but this is a clever, ro­bust first novel. I look for­ward to the next one from both authors.

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