For its double epigraph, Rock’n’Roll Heroes combines a couple of lines of Midnight Oil’s Hercules – ‘my life is a valuable thing / I want to keep it that way’ – with six wonderfully numinous sentences from Thomas Traherne:
‘When Australians run away, they always run to the coast.’ Robert Drewe has already debunked the myth of the bush as Australia’s heartland, and in The Bodysurfers pictured us living and loving on the very rim of the continent, precariously perched in salty, sweaty, and essentially temporary hedonistic bliss between the threat of the empty outback, the incendiary bush, and the menace of the ocean with its sharptoothed predators and secret stingers.
Collections of new Australian short stories by a single author have become a regular feature of Australian literary publishing in recent years. They are a welcome addition to the range of new writing available to the reading public. Collections that have unity of style, are thematically coherent and present a linked set of perceptions from the one creative source offer the reader much more than a light or fragmentary experience. Instead of the sustained characterisation of the novel, they can achieve a dazzling variety of episodes and mood. Robert Drewe’s Body Surfers and Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers are outstanding examples of how good the best collections of stories can be. It was a great delight to pick up I am a Boat by Sally Morrison and find that, although it is only her second book, in style, originality and literary quality, Morrison is fast approaching the Drewe and Garner class.
Stephanie Johnson writes short stories and writes mainly about women. It’s as though there’s a specific genre in current writing that ties together these two kinds of writing, for women writing about other women in short prose pieces make up a distinct category that includes almost all of the familiar names of women writing in Australia now. These women writers include migrants who have made their homes in Australia and write from that position. Johnson, for instance, is a New Zealander.
Peter Goldsworthy uses the short story to examine and question elements of the kind of life he leads. There is an attractive lack of pretence in his kind of story; Goldsworthy sketches social situations clearly and succinctly so that he can move on to probe the weaknesses in his characters’ otherwise complacent lives. As the back cover tells us, and the stories reveal, Goldsworthy is a medical practitioner in Adelaide and his fiction is in a tradition which begins with social experience and reflection on it.
About a year ago, when The Woodpecker Toy Fact and Other Stories was just a gleam in its author’s eye, I chanced to hear this very fancifully dressed woman read a story about childhood perception, semantic confusion, and small-town gossip. It was one of those welcome breaks at an academic conference, when we turned our attention from the analysis of art to the thing itself. And it was perhaps the context, along with the exceptional performance of the reader, which made this particular story stand out so vividly. For while it satisfied, they (by then quite desperate) desire to be enthralled by something fictive, it also played up cleverly to the critic in us all.
Welcome again to Morris Lurie’s global village: Melbourne, Paris, New York, London, Tangier, Tel Aviv, Melbourne again, London. Lurie is one of our most reliable entertainers, but he is also, in the recesses of his stories, a chronicler of inner loneliness. The round world for him is signposted with stories; as one of his characters says, ‘everything is a story, or a prelude to a story, or the aftermath of one.’ The sheer variety of narrative incidents and locales in this collection is, as usual with him, impressive in itself. His characters play hard with experience in those bright or familiar places, a Tangier of easy living and surprising acquaintances, a London of the sixties fierce with contrasts. Yet finally they are always partly detached from it all and able to set themselves free, curiously able to resume the role of spectator of life. Many of Lurie’s characters give the initially disconcerting impression of possessing that ultimate detachment of a certain kind of writer, even when, as is usually the case, they are not actually cast as a writer or artist.
On the stage or off, Peter Mavromatis is the unswerving centre of these stories. Unswerving as a focus, that is – in himself he swerves all over the place. Who and what is Peter Mavromatis? That’s what he’d like to know. His Cypriot parents and grandmother know who he should be. Sydney-born, he has grown up saddled with Greekness as a birthright and an unpayable debt. Peter Blackaeye: is he ‘Grik’? No, the Greeks at GMH decide, and drive him off the job. Australian? Not to his family, nor to many Australians.
A reviewer’s prejudices are rarely so obvious to him as are mine in the case of these two books. I have an instinct of sympathy with Peter Goldsworthy. Our first books of stories received a joint review from John Tranter in the Sydney Morning Herald. The venerable poet was, let us say, splendidly discouraging: Windsor’s and Goldsworthy’s joint faults made them ‘like so many hundreds of forgotten Australian short story writers before them’. We have been victims together. In the case of Archie Weller, I have to admit to negative prejudices. Weller is promoted as someone who nearly won the Vogel Prize, and I am suspicious of all the media hype and puff that surrounds that award. The price of greater publicity, runs my prejudice (conviction?), should be sharper critical attention.
This is the largest and most eclectic of Wilding’s four collections of short stories so far. Its 284 pages include stories ranging from ninety pages and two. Mostly written in the first person, they range in space between England and Australia, go back to the childhood of the narrator(s) (sometimes identified as Mike or Michael, making the autobiographical inferences irresistible) and in mode range from social realism through to the surrealistic modes of ‘What it was like, sometime