The western coast of Australia—beautiful, barren, sparsely populated—imposes a hardscrabble discipline on Winton’s brilliant prose (Dirt Music, 2002, etc.).
This collection of 17 interlinked tales feature the region’s remote towns, dirt roads and deserted coastline. As in the works of Frost or Aeschylus, hard, laboring lives yield hard-won knowledge. In “Commission,” an unforgiving son seeks out his father, a reformed alcoholic, who tries to explain how being a straight cop in a crooked small-town police force broke him down. “Cowardice, it’s a way of life,” he says bitterly. “It’s not natural, you learn it.” “On Her Knees” concerns a cleaning lady accused of stealing a valuable pair of earrings. Her son rejoices to find them under the employer’s bed, then realizes that the employer will simply assume the guilt-ridden cleaner has returned them. Moral judgments, meanwhile, are deepened by seeing characters recurrently. In “The Turning,” Max is an abusive drunk who bullies and assaults his young wife; in “Sand,” we see him as a boy envious of his good-natured younger brother, Frank. Finally, in “Family,” the adult Max and Frank, surfing together, encounter a shark. Frank has the chance to save his lifelong tormentor or let him perish: The story wryly concludes, “He held fast to his brother . . . for as long as he could, and for longer than he should have.”
These are stories full of vitality and bad choices, violence and unrewarded heroism. An unswerving fidelity to life as it is actually lived endows them with immense value.