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.