In Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria (2006), Girlie claims, ‘If you ever want to find out about anything in your vicinity, you have to talk to the mad people.’ There are a lot of mad people in Wright’s biography of Aboriginal activist, thinker, and provocateur ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth. He is probably the maddest of all, in the Kerouacian sense of ‘mad to live, mad to talk’, but, according to his mate Doug Turner, his ‘madness gave him sanity’.
Wright takes a polyphonic approach to profiling her quixotic subject. The lead voice belongs to Tilmouth, but she augments and counterpoints his words through interviews with more than fifty informants, in often pungent vernacular. The voices overlap, re-embroider, and articulate different perspectives.
When he was about four, authorities removed Tilmouth and his two younger brothers from their Alice Springs home and dumped them at a mission on Croker Island off Australia’s north coast. In his mid-teens he returned south, working at Angas Downs, where he found it was ‘very difficult to work out who you were and what you were ... I am a blackfella but not that black.’