The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 80 : 80


78 one of intent. Sokaluk is no martyr – in his previous job he would occasional­ly threaten co-workers, for example – but his solitude and societal isolation, paired with his autism and intellectu­al impairment­s, render a seemingly easy moral judgement difficult. His life has been one of constant failure and mockery. By the end of Year 11 he “had passed nothing”, could “barely read or write”. Neighbours and children were “casually cruel: ‘vegie’ or ‘retard’ or ‘spastic’ slid easily off their tongues”. There is a dark irony to his prosecutio­n – as Hooper notes, this was “perhaps the first moment in his life that a group of people had spent time asking him questions, listening to his stories and asides”. Yet his autism and inability to read the room render him frequently unsympathe­tic to investigat­ors and juries alike – he yawns openly in court, and never seems troubled by the severity of his situation. To those considerin­g his potential guilt, he looks, in Hooper’s words, “entirely vacant”. the book distinct from the rage and trauma that fired so much of Read 10 years after its publicatio­n, that book has lost none of its power, or its ability to incite simultaneo­us mourning and fury in a reader pondering the nation’s betrayal of its Indigenous population. Hooper focuses on a single death, that of Palm Island resident Cameron Doomadgee, and, for the book’s duration, makes it stand for an entire murdered continent: The Tall Man. It seemed to me that concentrat­ing on a white man killing a black man took the nation back to its original sin, as if expurgatio­n of this would stem the river of grog and the tides of violence drowning life in these communitie­s. If we could absolve ourselves of this first sin we might be able to pretend that the later ones – the ones now killing a generation – happened in a realm beyond our reach and responsibi­lity. For so much of the book’s readership carried a moral lesson, a demand to consider past trauma and enact future change. Despite Hooper’s wariness of pat resolution­s in the face of her country’s unconsider­ed racism, and the subsequent folly of imagining that one moment of justice – in Doomadgee’s case, denied – might set things right, a reader could feel, if even for a moment, an ugliness stared down. A similar claim for is hard to make. Confronted with Sokaluk’s crimes, and the mess of his life and background (its petty cruelties and grander destructio­ns alike), something as clear as a teachable moment is elusive. Yet this is not, I think, a failure on Hooper’s part. What it suggests is more a shift towards moral irresolvab­ility – into, perhaps, more troubling shades of grey. It’s a shift evident across all of Hooper’s work. In her first novel, flights into fantasy – moments of murder and madness acted out by cutely named animal characters – were neatly italicised and sequestere­d from the novel’s sturdier reality. In Hooper’s underappre­ciated second novel, published in 2012, no such separation exists to reassure the reader of what is actual and invented. The narrator’s and the reader’s assurances are similarly rearranged. Unlike so many true crime publicatio­ns and podcasts, to fully engage doesn’t require positionin­g oneself as an amateur sleuth in cahoots with the author. The book doesn’t seek to exonerate Sokaluk or, to put it melodramat­ically, bring new informatio­n to light. It instead looks painstakin­gly at the deed and the participan­t, without illusions or sentimenta­lity. There will doubtless be numerous readers who feel Hooper’s sympathies and attentions might have been more profitably directed towards another figure, that such an approach brings many victims nothing but pain. Perhaps Brendan Sokaluk and his crimes carry, even under well-intentione­d analysis, too great a burden of suffering. But perhaps, like Hooper’s admission at her own work’s end, we must nonetheles­s proceed in the belief that our attempts at understand­ing – our fiction-lined facts – hold up under the weight. The Tall Man An officer tells Hooper they spent month after month investigat­ing potential suspects based solely on reports made by “whoever disliked them”. The Arsonist There is also the question of his environmen­t – the community that surrounds him, the nature of the land he lives on. The Hazelwood Power Station is nearby, so too the environmen­tal blight of the Latrobe Valley’s brown coal deposits: the biggest in the world, stretching for “sixty-four kilometres in one direction, fifteen kilometres the other, with a depth of 180 metres”. Decay and disrepair abound. The Environmen­t Protection Authority sells local mine operators emergency approvals to pollute. Resultant health concerns go unchecked. Hazelwood becomes an icon for the government’s inaction on climate change. The Valley, in Hooper’s words, becomes “a human sink, a place people ended up”. At one point in the book, Hooper references Bruce Springstee­n’s “Youngstown”, with its smokestack­s “stretching into a dirty sky like the arms of a deity”, but she is also careful to avoid a determinis­tic reading of Sokaluk’s background. There is no simple answer to the region’s woes, no single point of blame for the man who would commit such devastatin­g acts of arson. As the book progresses, a nation’s disgust is balanced against other immoraliti­es and cruelties. My mind lingers on a small detail Hooper almost throws away: late in the book, deep into Sokaluk’s trial, the Arson Squad reveal the scale of their investigat­ions. An officer tells Hooper they spent month after month investigat­ing potential suspects based solely on reports made by “whoever disliked them”. Another Springstee­n line comes to mind, one that could almost serve as an epigraph for the book: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” It’s this diffuse quality – settling on many points but never finding a satisfacto­ry answer – that renders The Engagement, The Arsonist M arts & letters — books

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