By Tim Winton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
424 pages, $27
By Michael Langan
News Book Reviewer
Eyrie: what’s that?
It is a nest high up, perhaps occupied by an eagle or other bird of prey.
And Tim Winton, who’s he?
Well, if you don’t take an interest in Australian authors, you’d be forgiven for not knowing.
Winton is called by some the greatest living Australian writer, with 24 books by his hand over the last 30 years and twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize (for “The Riders” and “Dirt Music”).
Thomas Keneally, one of my favorite Australian writers, certainly qualifies for this accolade as well.
Our man’s a dab hand, though, an explosive writer, using some Australian slang we don’t normally come across. Winton suggests we pronounce the title of his new novel to rhyme with “airy”, suggesting down-under openness.
Australian argot startles the economy of the language we thought we knew. Consider this brief passage from his new novel. It describes how the narrator, Tom Keely, gathers his senses the next morning after falling into a stupor the night before.
“It was a simple enough thing, waking late and at liberty to the peals of the town clock below. Eight, nine, maybe ten in the a.m. Keely lacked the will to count. All that stern, Calvinist tolling gave him the yips. Even closed, his eyes felt wine-sapped….The tiny flat was hot already. Thick and heady with the fags and showers and fry-ups and dish-suds of others. The smells of his good neighbours. Which is to say the stench of strangers … just a bloody hangover. But for all that a pearler anyway, a real swine-choker.”
If this description is too much for you, stop drinking. Avoid this book.
But if you’re up for it and want to give Keely’s wine-blackened teeth a chance to mouth-off, then read the rest of the review and perhaps, Winton’s book.
Tom Keely is finally vertical in his 10th floor apartment. He lives in the old Mirador high-rise which twitches in the wind as it looks out on the Indian Ocean. The building gives off a “perpetual clank and moan of pipes,” but that’s about it.
The Mirador with its “grout-sick shower” is a bit like Keely: shot. He’s done it all or had it done to him: divorced, and fired from his job as an environmental activist. Feeling sorry for himself and having taken to drink results in his “choking on the morning’s free-range analgesics.”
Keely is resentful toward those still working, “All those folks, booted and suited, still in the game. Trying to give a (expletive). While keeping the wolf from the door. As if that were even possible.”
Every page of “Eyrie” has some sad and some funny bits on it. Keely notices, for example, that there are huge wet spots on his carpet. He’s hoping that the dampness on the nylon weave isn’t from his own bodily excretions, released while unconscious from the drink. Now just out of the shower with a loosely wrapped towel around him, it falls away as he gets down on all fours to investigate.
“He knelt on the carpet and sniffed. He dabbed at the fibres, smelt his fingers – delicately, tentatively at first, pressing his palms into the dampness, snuffling, rubbing, squinting. Until he thought of the picture he made, truffling about on all fours, date in the air, tackle adrift, whiffing out his own spoor like a lost mutt in full view of whichever bionic parking inspector happened to look skyward at this awful moment.”
For the collector of new words for old body parts, Winton waxes elegiac.
How does Winton come up with such scenes? Well, if we knew, we’d all be doing them, wouldn’t we?
Sometimes writers have a gift of imagination that ingests the picturesque and picaresque, all at once. They can be sensitive to every shimmer of light, hint of odor and variation of sound around them.
But there’s a risk of taking Winton only as a jester and gadfly of the scatological, when he has a deeper purpose in “Eyrie.”
With a description of Keely’s antics, the author is taking the temperature of what used to be called modern man’s fall from grace. These days, women get equal treatment in tumbling out of the rapture, although almost no one’s decline is remarked upon anymore. Instead antic behavior is seen in an anarchic society as an exercise of freedom.
As a serious artist Winton wishes to make Keely an exception. He demonstrates that there is some redemptive activity in Keely’s mix; something to hope for in life. It is a universal aspiration – the reader wants to believe that it is so - that propels the reading of “Eyrie” to its end.
Keely’s loathing of others can be seen as an extension of his unhappiness with his own life. In the midst of his decline, Keely tries to hang onto a “certain functional coherence,” even if it only comes to traversing a “phalanx of charity-tin can rattlers skulking soulfully in the trinket alleys and shady arcades” in order to purchase some food he can’t afford.
His neighbor a few doors away (how did she ever settle there; what were the odds, he wonders?), Gemma Buck, remembers him from years ago. She was somebody’s irritating little sister now middle aged and frayed, with a young grandson, Kai, in tow. In the early ’70s, Gemma and her sister would escape to Keely’s house from the beatings their father gave when he came home drunk on Friday night, his paycheck all used up.
One night Kai, the grandson who is oracular and a touch strange, says to Keely, “I knew you. I knew you before you had a face.” For some this will be a slightly revised evocation of Jeremiah 1:5, “I knew you in your mother’s womb,” effectively a shout-out for Keely to exit his shell of self-contempt and face the world again.
Tom calls his sister Faith to tell her about Gemma. Faith is busy and promises to call him back. Now Tom is thinking that he might call his mother, Doris, a brick, a saint; a call he owes her anyway. “Call Doris,” he thought. “Don’t be a weasel.”
He calls Doris and he is treated with dignity and respect by his mother. Doris, a lawyer, doesn’t refer to his divorce or his decline; she asks only that they have lunch.
Will things work out? Will Tom make a come-back, and if so, how so? This is the value of this perfect novel of imperfection. Have at it, mate.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of fiction.