Having read The Riders I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Tim Winton when I pulled Dirt Music off my shelf. So I wasn’t quite blown away this time by the exposure to Winton’s always active and refreshingly dynamic prose.
I can’t think of another writer who wields verbs the way he does, with such rapier dash and precision. Winton can’t even say that the plane flew but instead that “They bank out across mangroves and mudflats.” At every opportunity he seems to substitute the verb you or I would have used with something he’s come up with, often by verbifying a noun.
They pick up speed, Darkie lairizing a little at the wheel to make the kids giggle.
Georgie considered the map, the spill of topographical contours into Coronation Gulf.
The result is not a muscular prose; it’s prose on steroids and, sometimes, hallucinogens, like magic mushrooms.
As I mentioned in my review of The Riders this insistence of Winton to always go out of his way to try to say something in the most verbally exuberant and unexpected and challenging of ways became annoying in the end in that novel.
I focus on the verbs because I think Winton’s verbal invention skills are what really distinguish him as a writer. And not merely his dense descriptive powers and keen and sometimes unusual observations not only of landscapes—
In the distance the vast plateau lies in its variegated layers of red and black and green and in the afternoons the monsoon rains spangle it with waterfalls that look no bigger than sequins.
—and other inanimate beings, but of the psychological undercurrents that steer the lives his characters lead:
Fox tunes again for a moment before breaking into a mournful Irish air just to fill the silence, to mask his own discomfort. It starts out no more than a bit of noodling but the melody gets hold of him. He settles into the chord progression and feels himself begin to relax at the feel of the frets underhand, the way the tune offers itself up for elaboration at every turn, and when he completes the cycle he can’t leave off, he has to go again, this time with confidence, with a little more tapestry. The air plays itself out but still he can’t let go. He segues into a blues rag in the same key, just for a change of pace. Gets a little shuffle going despite himself, something that warms and loosens his tendons. The strings are like fencewire. Still he bends and slurs. His wrist feels gritty with disuse but he manages a slim vibrato all the same. The guitar’s tinny, toy-like tone rings in his chest. Music. And it’s not hurting anybody.
While reading The Riders I was fed up as well by Winton’s cast of unbelievable (i.e., hard for me to believe and engage with emotionally) characters, and having committed myself to finishing the novel I just wanted to get to the end of it and therefore became impatient with Winton’s verbal dexterity.
In Dirt Music the effect—upon me anyway—was very different. Here we have Winton talking about what he obviously knows inside out, and not once—or only very rarely—did I feel as if he missed a note. Or a beat.
Dirt Music is a highly orchestrated chronicle of at least three lives that intersect the way roads in the vastness of Western Australia must intersect: at unlikely junctions that might be long anticipated but even longer, sometimes, regretted.
And it is these characters—Lu Fox, Georgie Jutland, and her husband Jim Buckridge—who made me want to know more, and read on. Peopling this novel is a great supporting cast of characters who, together with the protagonists, provide a vivid social profile of contemporary Western Australia. This cultural setting—that of a small, closed, and intolerant community, an imaginary fishing town north of Perth run by lobster barons—is presented most effectively in the form of the language these people speak. Part of the attraction, charm and wonder of this novel is its linguistic mastery. Of course all of this is natural speech, but only natural to that part of the world, and Winton renders the local lingo—complete with its lush and expressive vocabulary of local fauna and flora—with such passion and ease that it was sometimes hard for me to know what these people were actually saying to each other. Although I could usually figure this out down to the last word if I put in the effort.
As far as the plot of this novel goes, three injured adults seek to free themselves from the legacies of their own lives, their own mistakes and fates, by basically blundering forward in pursuit of some sort of redemption. The novel ends with a too highly orchestrated—for my taste—coming together of these three threads, and a little melodramatically too. But the rich and diversely nuanced four hundred page journey to get to that end was well worth the ride. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, Dirt Music didn’t win, although it could easily have done so, being well and truly good enough.