Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook
University of Queensland Press, $29.95 hb, 247 pp, 9780702260391
Kenneth Cook (1929-87) was a prolific author best known for his first novel, Wake in Fright (1961), which was based on his experience as a young journalist in Broken Hill in the 1950s. In January 1972, as I sat in a London cinema watching the film made from this novel by director Ted Kotcheff, its nightmare vision of outback life seared itself into my brain. I was about to return home to Australia after two and a half years away, and I wondered why on earth I had made the fateful decision to go back to a place as violent and cruel as this.
Wake in Fright exemplifies the tradition of Australian bush Gothic, with its themes of entrapment, madness, sexual violence, and massacre (in this case, of kangaroos). Its small-town setting links it with Thea Astley’s novels dealing with the rituals of male violence and the humiliation of schoolteachers and other purveyors of culture beyond city limits. The restoration and rerelease of the film in 2009 again drew shocked and fascinated responses; since then, both book and film are frequently taught in Australian literature courses.