STEPHEN ORR Datsunland. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
The short stories in Datsunland strike notes of moodiness and dark irony.
Dreams and fantasies inform the lives of many of the doomed characters in this moody collection of 14 distinctly ‘literary’ stories. There is much here about fantasy, much about fate, about teenage boys, a great deal about violence and the promise of violence, and quite a bit about snot and nasal hair: ‘That’s what their lives had come down to – a flip of a coin.’ There’s a canary that tells fortunes, and also a fortune-telling machine: ‘All of the world’s riches will fall into your lap.’ Not likely. Life is a harsh and graceless business in Datsunland, and there is no relief.
The Datsunland of the title is a used-car dealership in Adelaide. The time is 2010, so the name carries a suggestion of a weird fantasyland, since the Datsun effectively went out of production in 1986. (In another story there’s ‘an old Datsun’ with a ‘non-existent windscreen’ abandoned on the lawn.) Damien Price, in his Datsunland shirt, is a widower whose teenage son Charlie is, with his guitar teacher William, the focus of the story. The sad, bleak register of the novella ‘Datsunland’ pervades all the stories – in which there is little room for optimism, and a certain bias towards vicious cruelty and indeed despair. William has not made much progress as a musician, and he hates teaching, hates schools. His feelings for some students, in particular Charlie, can reveal a certain tenderness. This tenderness, coupled with a surprisingly naïve stupidity, is, naturally, William’s downfall. (Stupidity, in fact, is a common failing of characters in many of the stories.)
The Christian Brothers school, Lindisfarne College, features in several stories throughout the collection. In ‘Datsunland’ its very name ‘Lindisfarne’ plays against that of the car dealership, since it suggests remote church history with its Irish monks and celebrated illuminated manuscripts. The only vestige of the distant monastery is a brass plaque telling the story, beside a carpark. A forlorn and mutilated statue of the Virgin Mary stands on the edge of a ‘memorial lawn’, spattered with mud and showered in dead pine needles. Nothing good, the reader knows, is going to happen here. And so it turns out. Weeds widen in the cracks of the concrete. Everything, by the last paragraph, seems to be quietly drifting to hell. Music, about which there is considerable detail, is not going to redeem anybody.
These are scary stories, and if you want to be really scared, Google ‘Akdal Ghost’ before you read the story of that name, and be afraid, be very afraid. It’s a Turkish pistol designed for use by police. In the story a gun dealer lends a loaded one to a lunatic preacher who is using it as a prop in a short movie. The gun is on the wall, reader. This is a particularly shocking story, involving an innocent schoolboy. I am not sure why the unpleasant director has the jokey literary name of DH Lorins. Jokes are few and far between. Reality cuts across fantasy, and, in a powerful move that the writer often makes in these stories, the reader is left to imagine the inevitable finale.
The name of the character in ‘The Barmera Drive-in’ is a sinister reference to Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Oxford historian who in 1983 foolishly authenticated the Hitler Diaries. This Trevor Roper has just, in 2012, bought the derelict old Adelaide drive-in where he spent many happy times as a boy. It has been an obsession; he has saved up to buy it since it closed. He now owns his ‘Super Duper Saturday-sized field of dreams’. He sets about ‘re-claiming his childhood by re-claiming the drive-in’. Clearly all this is going to be impossible. The narrative slips into memories that are enacted as present realities. ‘As a child he felt the world was imperfect; still did.’ And oh, it is, it is. A policeman stops and questions him as he sets about repainting the screen. Shaking his head, the policeman ‘got back in his car and drove off’. There is a sense that he will be back before long, and that men in white coats are not far away. Again, the reader is at liberty to imagine the final cut.
In ‘The Confirmation’, set in Ireland in 1976, the ending is as the reader expects, but unlike in other stories, the violence is described. The story tells of a sectarian massacre, in the background of which is the ritual peace of the Catholic service of Confirmation. This technique of playing a dream-like peaceful narrative against a hideously violent one is often employed throughout the collection. The Holy Ghost, the dove, is hovering back there at the ceremony of Confirmation, the four men in balaclavas are pointing their rifles and pistols at the men on the wet road, and the main character, in the silence, hears ‘a flock of birds in a tree somewhere’.
Birds in these stories are rare signifiers of music and beauty. The tragic, gifted six-year-old boy in ‘The Adult World Opera’ blots out the sounds of his mother’s boyfriend kicking ‘a cardboard box half full of empty bottles’ by listening to ‘three types of birds’. And he reads adult books, including A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia. This book title is also the title of one of the stories in the collection. It is in ways such as this, cross-references between stories, that Stephen Orr makes a fine web of connections between narratives that are unrelated. The abused child lives in squalor with his mother and her boyfriend: ‘A pile of dirty dishes in the sink, empty beer bottles, butter left open and melted on the table.’ The story moves between grotesque reality and fantasy until the child dies from infected burns, in front of a television show where there are ‘a couple of flowers with human faces, singing about water and sunshine’. Darkest irony. There was even a Lindisfarne blazer somewhere there in the fantasy.
Stephen Orr Datsunland Wakefield Press 2017 PB 312pp $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. In September 2017 her e-book of eight short stories The Dead Aviatrix will be published.
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