Jim McNeil was a two-bit thug. A liar, a thief, a recurrent wife-beater and bully, probably a murderer, definitely a racist, he was a man in whom psychotic rage was seldom remote. Contradictions were elemental to his character: he was intelligent and charismatic, yet obdurate and ratty. Violence and menace defined him, but he was at heart a coward. He meticulously planned armed robberies, but frequently bungled their execution. He was nicknamed ‘The Laughing Bandit’, but his smiling demeanour was born of contempt for the people he traumatised and of disbelief at the ease with which he could snatch wealth. As the subtitle of Ross Honeywill’s aptly named biography makes clear, McNeil was also a playwright of subtle instinct and luminous talent. His is a Jekyll–Hyde conundrum well worth this contemplation.
Few who saw them will forget the grainy newspaper images of Australian drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers. Despite high-level diplomatic pleas from the Australian government, they were hanged at Pudu jail in Kuala Lumpur in July 1986 for possessing 180 grams of heroin. In the post-execution mêlée, their bodies were concealed by blankets, but one foot was casually left uncovered. The poignancy of those toes was heart-rending, their vulnerability encapsulating the brutal and ruthless efficiency of law in that region of South-East Asia.
Peter Goldsworthy justly commands a seat at the big table of the Australian hall of literary achievement. This was underlined on Australia Day with his gonging as a Member of the Order of Australia for service as an author and poet. It is a prize that should glitter comfortably on the mantelpiece alongside the likes of his South Australian Premier’s Award, his Commonwealth Poetry Prize, his Bicentennial Literary Prize for Poetry, and his FAW Christina Stead Award for fiction.
For someone who has practised half-time as a writer and half-time as a GP for the past thirty-five years, his output is admirably prolific: eight novels, including one co-written with Brian Matthews, five collections of short stories, half a dozen poetry collections, two novels adapted as plays, two opera libretti, and a spot of essayistic Navel Gazing (1998). He has also done time on literature’s administrative front line, his committee stints including four and a half years as chairman of the Australia Council’s Literature Board. All of which mark him out as a littérateur of the first order.
In life and in literature, Peter Carey has been as attracted by the pull of the past as by realities of the present. Then there is his recurrent fascination with the two-country divide, where the lure of exile vies with the sentiment of ‘home’, and the schism between country of choice (or country that ‘chooses’ you) and country of birth means that neither is ever fully suitable.