JOHN KINSELLA Old Growth. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
John Kinsella’s short stories reveal flashes of beauty amid the bleakness.
‘They were close enough to the dregs of the river to have a water rat dead on their dead lawn.’ So far, so ugly – the opening line of the 18th story in this collection of 27. By number 18 I was more or less ready for the dead rat on the dead lawn to be compared to the pubic hair of a teenage girl while the girl’s brother pokes at the rat with a stick and sniggers.
This is a sad story about incest, and if there is one mood that hovers over the whole collection, it is that of sadness. Any possible vestige of hope or joy is obliterated over and over again in an overwhelming blight of one poison or another. The grim late-20th-century lives of these characters living mainly in the wheat-belt of Western Australia and areas near Perth are enacted and exposed with chilling precision. Something has gone very wrong with human nature and it finds itself trapped in a bleak nightmare of grotesque banality that borders on madness. The principle feeling one person has for another is contempt.
To return to the image of hair – the teenage boys in many of the stories are grubbily fixated on their own pubic hair and that of the girls. But there is at least one image that flashes with light and beauty across the collection – that of male attraction to the hair on women’s heads: ‘her hair was the colour of last year’s harvest’. But another frequent image it is that of the pig – men, women, boys, girls – they are all often described as pigs, and they make pig noises, faithfully rendered as ‘oink, oink’. This is not comic, by the way, but is in line with the frequent references to shit and piss and vomit: ‘His brother’s vomit splashes back on to him’ and so on. You might expect to find semen in the list of bodily fluids, but it doesn’t get as much attention as the others. Likewise tears – there are few tears. This nasty, sorrowful landscape is too bleak for tears: ‘All you need to know about your father is that he enjoys killing pigs.’
Needless to say, the relationship between the men and the women is filled with menace, brutality, pain and damage. And the bushfires, asbestos, bullying, alcohol, drugs and so forth are also players in the abject drama of people’s lives. I longed for someone to have a faithful dog or a horse for a friend. A cat, perhaps. Sheep figure benignly in one story where a boy reads poetry to them. There is sometimes access to a finer perspective, such as poetry or stamp collecting or music, but these things lead only to obsession and disaster in this filthy world of hopelessness. There is no redemption. In fact occasionally a character will have a glimpse of the divine, but this will lead only to eccentricity bordering on insanity. The prevailing hell on earth is too powerful.
Yet, beneath and behind all this human misery, there is a natural world, a world that is key to the life of the writer, poet John Kinsella. In the story ‘The Engine Room Cure’, ‘Twenty-eight parrots briefly touch down, then leave their upper branches in search of more familiar fare’. The precision of the number, the delicious rhythm of the sentence, the verb ‘touch down’ – these are sweet moments that slake the reader’s thirst for another truth. They are all too rare in the collection, but then the project of Old Growth must surely be to privilege the horror of relentless human crimes against the natural world, against ‘nature’ itself. The human being is self-destructive within the doomed universe.
One of the most dazzling examples of this breakthrough of the gleaming possibilities of the natural world comes in ‘Bulge’:
He recalled seeing a jewel beetle early that morning, out in the sun, on a geranium leaf … 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.
The beetle is ‘like a rhino’. Now, the closing story, ‘Licence’, features a ‘beast-like’ cop named Rhino ‘known to bash young drunks’. The final note of the collection signs off with the bleak melody of what has gone before, but the cop’s name can just possibly remind the reader of the existence of the jewel beetle. And the title story works through the ‘sorry sight’ of the deliberate torching of a dead wife’s beloved trees, to thoughts of the extinction of the thylacine. The flames climb ‘from tree to tree’. And there follows another flash of the poet’s tender love of the natural world:
From the broad-based water-loving flooded gums, through a band of York gums and jam trees, over the granite outcrop with its rare orchids, up into the magnificent wandoos that held the sunset cold and warm at once in their powdery barks, exploding through the undergrowth as flash pursued by smoke and shadow.
That seems to me to be what this collection is doing, exploding through the undergrowth as flash pursued by smoke and shadow. The shadow seems to be winning.
John Kinsella Old Growth Transit Lounge 2017 PB 256pp $29.95
Carmel Bird is the author of 30 books, including novels, collections of short fiction, and books on writing, such as Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life. Her most recent novel is Family Skeleton. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Award.
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