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Notes on some stunning Antipodean authors

By Brian Doyle

April 25, 2014


 

By a series of peculiar coincidences I have twice been to Australia on shambling book tours, and both times by happy chance I got to meet some remarkable writers, and this morning it seems to me that I ought to celebrate them publicly, for many of them are not so well known or read in America. I sing them as an alert Australian might sing remarkable current Americans who are not so well read in the Antipodes—George Saunders, say, or Ian Frazier, or the great poet Pattiann Rogers, or the superb novelist Alice McDermott—all writers whose work, it seems to me, says something deep and salty and honest and startling about Americanness.

There is the masterful David Malouf, who seems to me Australia’s dean of letters, a sort of Down Under John Updike, best known for his novels (try the epic The Conversations at Curlow Creek) and short stories, but also author of a lovely memoir of his childhood in Brisbane before it was changed utterly by the Second World War (12 Edmonstone Street). There is Richard Flanagan, best known for his novels (o gawd, read his first novel, Death of a River Guide), but also a terrific passionate angry eloquent journalist furious that his native island is being stripped of its magical forests and roaring rivers (read his collection And What Do You Do, Mr Gable?). There is his brother Martin Flanagan, who wrote the best book about sport and culture I have read in a decade, called The Game in Time of War. There is Chloe Hooper, whose book Tall Man, about an aboriginal man’s death at the hands of the police on an Australian island, is also very much about Australia’s grappling finally with racism and power and shame over the theft of the biggest island in the world from the estimated 300,000 people resident there when English ships sailed into Sydney Harbor. There is the polymath Helen Garner, author of absorbing novels (notably The Spare Room and Cosmo Cosmolino), as well as one of the finest essayists I’ve ever read (The Feel of Steel and True Stories). There is James Button, who wrote speeches for former prime minister Kevin Rudd and wrote a piercing book about that time and his brilliant remote father and his beloved troubled seething country (Speechless). There is Tim Winton, who wrote one of the best 10 novels I have read (Cloudstreet, about Perth). There is Mark Tredinnick, a fine poet and, even better, the author of the lyrical The Blue Plateau, about wilderness and fire and history in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. There is the late Terry Monagle, whose essay collection Claws of Fire is as riveting a spiritual text as I have read in years. And maybe best of all, most of all, the songwriter and musician Paul Kelly, who is not only Australia’s Springsteen and Dylan combined, but a fascinating writer—read his uncategorizable book How to Make Gravy, which is at once memoir, meditation on making music and writing songs, and often hilarious and wry contemplation of the music business as lived by one of its foremost practitioners over the past 40 years.

This is not even to burble about the terrific writers I have not met, like the great poets Les Murray and Cate Kennedy, and the late Henry Lawson (who was the Australian Mark Twain), and … I’d better stop.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of numerous books, most recently the novel The Plover.

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