John Kinsella’s short stories are the closest thing Australians have to Ron Rash’s tales of washed-out rural America, where weakened and solitary men stand guard over their sad patch of compromised integrity in a world of inescapable poverty, trailer homes, uninsured sickness, and amphetamine wastage. Poe’s adventure stories and internally collapsing characters lightly haunt the short fiction of Rash and Kinsella. Like Rash, Kinsella can write acute and unforgettable stories about threatened masculinity. Kinsella’s latest collection, Old Growth, closely follows his 2016 work Crow’s Breath in subject and design. Although he is best known as a fine poet, these stories add considerably to his stature as a prose writer.
Old Growth is concerned with environmental degradation, small-town contempt for outsiders, and indigenous people, children who need protection from adults and one another, lives lost to compromise, terrible miscalculations of the motives of others, and isolation, particularly the geographical and emotional isolation of women. These stories are not overly concerned with exquisite observation of the natural world; the emphasis falls on the need for environmental protection and the exposure of rural social destructiveness, but when Kinsella turns his attention to nature the results are remarkable:
The jewel beetle rainbowed in the sun and he was, momentarily, caught in its colours, part of its exoskeleton. This is what God is, he said aloud, full of joy. I don’t really get depressed, he told the doctor his mother took him to. I am really quite happy, he insisted. The jewel beetle went to the edge of the leaf like a rhino, clumping across a sponge world, and then amazingly and beautifully angled itself around the leaf’s furry and serrated edge, and was walking upside down in defiance of all, the sun shining through the leaf like skin and lighting the inner life, the shadow upside-down world, the jewel beetle soul.