A class act in see­ing life through dif­fer­ent eyes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

On Dif­fer­ent Class, the sem­i­nal 1995 al­bum by English rock band Pulp, front­man Jarvis Cocker sang about “com­mon peo­ple’’. Com­pa­ra­ble is­sues of class un­der­pin the sto­ries in Tony Birch’s new col­lec­tion of the same name. Mel­bourne-based Birch throws us straight into the ac­tion. There is al­ways ur­gency and vi­tal­ity in his sto­ries; there is al­ways a wide ter­rain. Char­ac­ters are im­me­di­ately and com­pletely drawn with just a few words, and do not fit into eas­ily de­fined moulds.

Two women drive into the night to join a long line of peo­ple hop­ing for the chance to do ex­haust­ing and il­le­gal meat-pack­ing work in an outer sub­ur­ban abat­toir. A home­less man who helps a girl give birth is never seen again. A boy sets a scrap yard on fire af­ter the death of his brother. An in­ner-city in­dige­nous girl is se­lected to go on hol­i­day with a wealthy white fam­ily in 1960s Mel­bourne. A ge­neal­o­gist is em­ployed by a fu­neral par­lour to lo­cate fam­ily for cre­mains that have been un­claimed for decades. Com­plete worlds pile up, Birch skil­fully steer­ing the fu­ri­ous en­ergy of his writ­ing so as not to make it ex­haust­ing for the reader.

“We tell sto­ries in or­der to live,” Joan Did­ion wrote, and this is true of Birch and his char­ac­ters, who use sto­ry­telling to cope, in­ven­tion as a key to sur­vival.

Joe Roberts, liv­ing alone with no next of kin, has been in pain for a while. At the hospi­tal, nurses and doc­tors are kinder than they are re­quired to be. Juts small words, the touch of a hand, but it makes a dif­fer­ence to Joe. When the boy in the neigh­bour­ing flat is locked out, Joe brings him din­ner and waits with him un­til his mother comes home. Birch writes with great in­sight about this boy and man, both of whom have no ex­tended con­nec­tions to turn to. With­out lay­ing on the em­pa­thy too thick, their re­al­ity is laid bare: es­cap­ing their sit­u­a­tion is al­most im­pos­si­ble.

Party Lights reads like a Gus Van Sant short film. A cou­ple of friends, high on a drug con­coc­tion named Party Lights, see a man dig­ging a huge hole. He says he’s de­mol­ish­ing a house and then bury­ing it in the hole. Fas­ci­nated, they watch him do ex­actly that. The lit­tle they have is a result of their com­pan­ion­ship.

In Painted Glass, Birch ex­plores the value of art. When a jour­nal­ist is laid off, and then is in a car ac­ci­dent he doesn’t re­mem­ber, a psy­chol­o­gist sug­gests he re­turn to his child­hood hobby of art. Birch slows down the nar­ra­tive in the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, where the man’s en­counter with art and then with a de­lighted child is pre­cisely what he needs. His day is made better by the peo­ple he watches and meets. De­scrip­tions are pre­cise and evoca­tive: walk­ing away from the NGV, the jour­nal­ist looks at “the tea-stained wa­ter of the wide river”.

In Wor­ship, Lola walks past a home­less man and his mother, who asks for a smoke. Lola doesn’t have one but at the su­per­mar­ket she buys a pack. When she stops to give it to the woman, they chat. Lola, a re­cov­er­ing alcoholic, is about to look af­ter her grand­daugh­ter for the first time. Later, tak­ing her grand­daugh­ter for a walk, she sees the mat­tresses of the home­less pair be­ing cleaned off the street by coun­cil work­ers. Birch evokes place and time with small de­tails dropped in un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously, and the sto­ries are rife with so­cial com­men­tary. “Men with beards, neck tat­toos and pedi­gree dogs fre­quented the cafe and felt better about them­selves af­ter drop­ping a few coins in the bowl of some­one sleep­ing rough for the night.”

We are left to make what we will of each sit­u­a­tion, each story a gen­er­ous course in this de­gus­ta­tion.

His lan­guage never calls attention to it­self but the oc­ca­sional hu­mour is per­fectly de­ployed. “One qual­ity I’ve al­ways ad­mired in the Micks; they never give up on a way­ward soul.

Tony Birch flies his short story drone far and wide

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