Tim Winton’s novel about a journey of teenage male self-discovery is raw, brutal and merciless. You need to be familiar with Australian vernacular to appreciate the first-person narration by the young protagonist who says he is 17 but is thought to be ‘more like 15’ by an old renegade Irish priest he meets in the wastelands of Western Australia. Jackson Clackton is on the run in the scrub and salt-lands away from the coast. His voice is full of Oz-isms — roo bars, johnnycakes, mulga and gimlets.
Jaxie flees small-town Monkton. His mother is dead, and his father kills himself in an accident for which Jaxie thinks he will be blamed. He embarks on a desperate quest to reach his girlfriend, who lives to the north, and takes us into the inhospitable hinterland. Here he chances on Finton MacGillis, cast out by the Roman Catholic Church and living like an old church father in an abandoned shepherd’s hut, awaiting the sacrament of reconciliation.
There is a mammoth struggle between their two minds throughout. They speak different languages. Jaxie eats something that gives him the gripes, ‘Whatever it was went through me like a rifle rag. Come dawn, me date was so hot you could have lit a sparkplug off of it.’ MacGillis philosophises in studied phrases sometimes ‘drowning in his own words’, ‘There you are in your beginning and here I am near my end.’
Jaxie learns much self-awareness at MacGillis’s broken-down hovel. In the face of awful turns of fate, he proves himself to be what MacGillis foretold:
‘Don’t you see it Jaxie Clackton, you are an instrument of God.’ ‘Oh, I said, you mad fucker. You been out under the moon too long.’
The end shocks but is not altogether unexpected.
Winton’s writing is direct, unrelenting in its roughness and almost barbaric. Yet he has some brilliant touches of imagery. The old priest’s ‘skin swam on him like it was too big for his carcass, like it was borrowed’. Falstaff comes to mind: ‘My skin hangs about me like an old lady’s loose gown.’ With some sophistication Jaxie observes of a rifle shot: ‘The spent shell come out the .243 shining like a bright idea.’
The theme-song of this novel is ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. The one in Salinger’s more restrained story of adolescent Sturm und Drang, is ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’. But Holden Caulfield, you have been eclipsed.