A gathering of the short fiction—some of it not so short—of Australia’s poet of loneliness.
In any given story by Malouf (Dream Stuff, 2000, etc.), someone is talking past someone else; think Cheever, or possibly Kafka, in the outback, the hills echoing not with screams but silences—to say nothing of a lot of crocodile thrashing, bird squawking, joey thumping and the splashing of “the big, rain-swollen streams that begin in a thousand threadlike runnels and falls in the rainforests of the Great Divide.” Often his protagonists are children, as in the boy of “At Schindler’s,” who must accept the fact that his father is missing in action in World War II, or the kid of “The Valley of Lagoons,” forced to intercede between a would-be pal and a sister who can think of nothing but escaping the backcountry and getting to some congenial city. Malouf’s adults are scarcely more able to comprehend the complexities of the world, but they try. In “War Baby,” a valuable contribution to Australia’s surprisingly small literature on the Vietnam War—in which many thousands of Australians fought—the central character is transformed from unsure boy to combat-grizzled veteran. Even though he is still very young, he is now experienced enough to understand the anonymity of death and “how small the pressures might be that determine the sum of what is and what we feel, the fugitive deflections and instinctive blind gestures that might be the motor of change.” Change drives many of these fictions: changes of venue as lovers drift apart, changes as the once-remote scrubland spits up “a new shopping mall, with a skateboard ramp for young daredevils, two floodlit courts for night tennis and, on the river side, a Heritage Walk laid out with native hybrids”—minus, of course, aborigines, cowboys, loggers and other characters from Australia’s history.
A superb collection of stories that are quiet, assured, lyrical, aching.