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.
As a writer I always read critically, on numerous levels simultaneously, and at least one of my roaming critical eyes is always turned back upon myself—and my own work, and what I might or might not be able to achieve—in comparison to what I happen to be reading at the time.
This happens every time I pick up a book, but it isn’t the only thing that happens. And I only mention it now because some writing is so impressive upon first contact with it that the writer in me feels overwhelmed to the point of impotence.
That was my initial reaction to the opening pages of The Riders. I was taken aback, and very excited, by the display of verbal virtuosity in these pages.
The cold breeze charged into the house, finding every recess and shadowy hollow. It rattled boards upstairs and lifted scabs of paint from the walls to come back full in his face smelling of mildew, turf, soot, birdshit, Worcestershire sauce and the sealed-up scent of the dead and forgotten. [Scully] scraped his muddy boots on the flagstones and closed the door behind him. The sudden noise caused an explosion in the chimney as jackdaws fled their fortress of twigs in the fireplace. His heart racing, he listened to them batter skyward, out into the failing day, and when they were gone he lit a match and set it amongst the debris.
This might not be the best example of what I mean, but in this fragment of the first paragraph of the novel the reader can see already how active the language is going to be, and how vivid at times: those “scabs of paint” flapping in the sudden violent draft occasioned by the opening of the long-closed door and returning to Scully all those odors of the abandoned musty cottage he has come to fix up, including the “sealed-up scent of the dead and forgotten.”
The sound of the startled jackdaws’ wings, battering out of the house and into the sky.
I liked all that, it made my pulse quicken. And the following paragraphs were dense with more of the same. And soon the character of Pete-the-Post, the good-natured friendly and helpful Irishman commissioned with the delivery of the mail appeared, to alleviate what might have become the burden of slogging through such a densely verbalized and occasionally impressionistic woods.
And Pete is brilliantly rendered, especially his speech, as well as the banter between he and the Aussie newcomer. Pete is not only the most sympathetic character in the entire novel but the most accurately portrayed, the most believable character in the whole book. And among other things we have, in these first chapters, a splendid bit of interplay between life and attitudes in Old Ireland and New Australia, a dichotomy of climates and their consequent cultures.
So Tim Winton’s novel gets off to a great start. And soon I was wishing I didn’t know what every reader who glances at the book cover knows before they begin to read the book: that this working class bloke Scully is fixing up a run-down cottage in the “Irish outback” because his pregnant wife Jennifer and their precocious six-year-old daughter Billie, with whom Scully has always been—judging from his reminiscences—particularly tight, were coming to live there, once they had sold the house they owned in Fremantle and returned from Australia. I wished, as a reader, that I didn’t know that only Billie would get off the flight from London in another few weeks, shortly before Christmas.
And I wished I didn’t know this because Winton does an excellent job of setting the reader up for Scully’s disappointment; but not—it has to be said—his utterly pathetic bewilderment and the choices he makes when only a tight-lipped Billie gets off that plane.
From that point on the novel, for me, begins to flounder.
The night before the anticipated arrival of the rest of his three-musketeer family Scully accepts Pete’s invitation to go out and have a drink. He drinks a little too much and sometime during that long night Scully wakes up and goes outside—naked beneath his robe, his sockless feet slipped into a pair of Wellies—and wanders into a strange scene below the ruins of the neighboring castle. Although Winton returns at the very end of the novel to that which is alluded to in this capricious dream-like visitation—after which Scully wakes up, the next morning, and finds his bedsheets littered with dried mud, so the reader knows at least that Scully really did wander down there that night—he provides no further clues at any time as to what this is all really supposed to be about (or perhaps it could be that I, as a reader, have become, by the time we get to that second and last castle-at-night scene with mute horsemen carrying flaming torches, that ends the book, so disillusioned with the story that I can’t be bothered to grant Winton the benefit of the doubt and indulge in any effort to try to figure out what this vision is meant to represent?).
From the arrival of Billie on page 89 I began to lose faith in the novel. Not only has Winton set us up for a relationship of complicity between him and the child, providing us—or those of us who are parents anyway—with hard-to-believe memories of how articulate and curious and eager Billie is (and my own daughter was and remains a great reader), so that we can only be baffled by her stubborn silence during the entire length of the novel, but Jennifer too remains not only barely explicable, if that much, but unjustifiable in every way (her behavior, her character, her ‘mysterious’ choice not to get on that plane to Dublin).
My response to Jennifer’s having abandoned Scully and their daughter is never moral indignation. What bothered me is that Winton plays with the reader, avoiding providing us with any little bits of relevant information or clues not because he couldn’t come up with them I suppose, but simply because he—as a writer—doesn’t want to. And that makes me feel used, and mistreated, as a reader.
Add to that my growing impatience with Scully and the choices he makes, his near total disregard for the child’s welfare, an impatience that soon morphs into boredom with him as a character. And add to that Winton’s forcing of the baffling metaphors:
The city was fat with taxi horns and bells.
The sound of bells roosted on the wind.
Something about a “fish sky,” whatever that is, or would look like, or smell like, on page 326, and air “so cold it felt like Coke going down your neck,” or the “hard Christmas air.”
Add all this up and the read becomes drudgery.
I hate to state in such unequivocal terms my disillusion with this novel but my intention in these mini-reviews is to be honest. What I have to say about The Riders is only ever my opinion, nothing more. This is a book that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and after having heard Winton speak on the radio I looked forward to reading his work. But this book is not for me.