Australian authors? I haven’t the time for them. Sure, I like Morris Lurie’s punchy, addictive short stories as much as anybody has a right to, and consider his ‘Africa Wall’ one of the very best of the medium I have ever had the good fortune to read, but his novels drag ideas out much longer than they deserve to be dragged, and his fondness for repetition starts to grate over any more than a dozen or so pages (Seven Books For Grossman, while marketed as a novel, is really just a collection of short stories, thematically linked, and is still excellent because of this. Oh, and Welcome To Tangier is pretty good also).
So who are we left with, then? These days it’s kind of a toss-up between Peter Carey, Tim Winton and Frank Moorhouse. All three are good enough writers, but authors? I think not. They have no concept of story, and succeed merely by virtue of being incessantly thrust between the eyes and ears of the Australian reading public. Which is fair enough, I guess, as they’re the closest we’re ever going to get to a holy trinity of superstar local authors. They always seem to be on the bestseller charts, but with the exception of that Ned Kelly book, I never saw anybody buying ‘em.
Bryce Courtenay? Bryce Courtenay is like Stephen King’s goody two-shoes twin brother. Anybody who can churn out a massive housebrick of a novel every six months is doing something wrong, as The Blue News was wont to amusingly point out every other issue. Stephen King’s problem was that he ran out of ideas. Courtenay’s problem is that he’s boring.
I’m sure there are plenty of others, but as far as I’m concerned, once we’ve swept that lot out of the way, we’re left with only two possibilities: John Birmingham, and Andrew McGahan.
John Birmingham has gone the way of Matthew Reilly, with his wank-schlock Axis Of Time novels (the first novel, Weapons Of Choice, named, I’ll wager, after the Fatboy Slim song, because Christopher Walken was flying and Birmingham was stoned), wherein modern military forces are magically transported back in time to World War II, and become involved in various lightweight existential dramas. I flicked through the more recent one at Border’s the other day, and it was like an Iron Maiden song come horribly to life and then surgically removed from its awesome. Besides, anybody who has even the slightest bit of time travel science, picked up from Terminator movies, knows that you can’t transport anything that isn’t organic.
It’s kind of a shame, because the ubiquitous He Died With A Felafel In His Hand was a pretty fun yarn, and even The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco, which was the same book, was enjoyable enough.
Finally, we come to Andrew McGahan. I had seen the movie Praise years and years ago, and then came across the novel at a Salvation Army store in my hometown of Townsville. I grabbed it because it was like three dollars and read a lot like Charles Bukowski, and I liked the idea of a dude from Queensland getting his book published, because nothing like that had ever happened before. I read it and enjoyed it thoroughly, and still do, but could never bring myself to pick up 1988, which was written after but acted as a prequel to Praise.
Until, as it happens, I hooked up with a mate who was buddies with McGahan, and we were in St. Kilda at some ridiculous street festival, and it was hot and I was extremely drunk, and McGahan materialised and was introduced to me only as “Andrew”. I was like “Yeah, cool” and lit a cigarette or whatever, until my friend told me that I should read this Andrew’s Last Drinks, and it clicked in my mind. My transformation from nonchalant drunk to gibbering dickhead was almost miraculous in its velocity. I was like: “Oh, that Andrew…I’d better shake your hand again!” and I did and told him how much I dug Praise and then, I am told, stood there smiling creepily at him for about five minutes, swaying gently from side to side. Happily he was drunk too and didn’t notice, and we went our separate ways.
But the seed of an idea had been planted in my mind, and, as I was soon to be away to the Gold Coast for my wedding and subsequent honeymoon, I figured I would need some reading material, so the next day I went out and picked up 1988 and Last Drinks. I read both sitting by the pool as my lovely wife and I honeymooned at the Palazzo Versace – my first, last, and only foray into pointless extravagance – and was enthralled. 1988 was far more excellent than it had any right to be, superior to Praise in every respect, and it made me very thirsty: I was ordering up $8 plastic pints of VB like nobody’s business. I read 1988 the first day and started up on Last Drinks the next day.
Let me tell you now, that if you, in your lifetime, read only one book by Andrew McGahan, make it Last Drinks. What a sublime and brilliant effort, one of those rare books that, almost literally, you simply cannot put down. It flows like a fascinating conversation and, as an added bonus, is probably the best representation of Bjelkie-era Queensland that will ever be committed to paper. It is, plainly, a history lesson wrapped up in a mystery wrapped up in a timeless tale of a man’s struggle with the demons of drink. Sure, I might make it sound rubbish, because I’m not a book reviewer, thank Christ, but please, I implore you: read it.
But what to do after Last Drinks? McGahan’s next novel, naturally: The White Earth. Winner of numerous awards and recipient of numerous accolades. I grabbed it and got thirty pages in, before setting it aside in something bordering on disgust, sort of straddling the line between disgust and profound disappointment. I tried it twice more subsequently and just couldn’t understand it. Legend has it that McGahan, who can consume a whole slab of Melbourne Bitter at a single barbeque and still walk in a straight line, had cut down significantly on his drinking during his time on The White Earth and, while in some ways that is indeed a noble and, whatsmore, incredibly difficult enterprise, his writing has suffered for it. The White Earth is like a thick molasses of nothingness, a story of a child on a farm and all that that involves, and if it helped the author exorcise some things, then good, fantastic, but, for me, McGahan’s writing is like a rambling yet entirely coherent tale told over jug after jug in a cool, smoky pub.
Beer makes the perfect accompaniment to Praise, 1988 or Last Drinks, but The White Earth is like meeting a good drinking buddy for a dry work lunch. His essence is still there, but his spirit is not. I can only hope that McGahan cracks a few before starting in on his next opus, because there’s something pornographic about reading the back of a bottle of bourbon without sampling what’s inside.
Update: Speaking of Stephen King, didn't he announce his retirement from writing a few years ago? Apparently he lied.