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Fiction reviews


Garry Disher - The Difference to Me; Ian Kennedy Williams - Stopping Over; Grant Caldwell - The Revolt of the Coats

20 September 1988

The Difference to Me: Prize-winning stories
Garry Disher
Angus & Robertson

Stopping Over
Ian Kennedy Williams

Hale & Iremonger

The Revolt of the Coats

Grant Caldwell
Angus & Robertson

published in The Australian

Three new books by Australian men born in the late 1940s. First, the good news.

His short story collection The Difference to Me showcases the truly exceptional talents of Melbourne writer Garry Disher. These stories are underlined by a relentless assurance that is rare in all but the cream of our writers.

Amateur Hour, set in rural South Africa, tells us much about the evil regime by focussing on one Afrikaaner geologist and his wife. Their racial attitudes seem little short of deranged from our Australian perspective, yet on the veldt they possess a chilling kind of normalcy.

Disher appears to like sudden dismantlings - and their effect is always a quiet dismay. Restoration, for example, only tells us what it is about in the closing paragraphs. Till then you think you're reading of an Australian artist succeeding in Italy, surrounded by wealthy admirers, being visited by an old friend... Then veneers are peeled like paint under a blowtorch, and the inner man separated from the outer with a deftness that takes your breath away.

The Boundary Man is probably the best Lawson-style short story not penned by the master himself. It has the storyline (about an old boundary rider), the rhythms, the lexicon, and the slightly bewildered, drily humorous narration that we associate with the best of Lawson.

Disher's extraordinary range, perhaps, springs from his command of "voice". He has a wonderful ear, and his dialogue has all the mundanity, and meaning, of the last time you and your friends gathered in the kitchen. In general the prose is lean, engaging, devoid of pretence - and measured like a master's. It made me wonder why we haven't we heard a lot more of this author.

Garry Disher has paid us the compliment of working very hard over these stories: the crafting is meticulous. Hopefully they will springboard him to the wider readership he so clearly deserves.

IAN KENNEDY WILLIAMS'S first novel, Stopping Over, has an unobtrusive style that makes it a relatively easy read. It's narrated by a young traveller staying in an unnamed country town. The writing is sufficient, and occasionally very fine - but the story itself somewhat slight. 
Our hero stays with a middle-aged woodcarver and his wife, Bella. He fancies Bella, and spends a good deal of time sending sleazy musings in her general direction. Between-times, though, his actions take on a perfunctory tone. He visits people, works nights, and goes swimming. A hundred pages on, that most devastating of critical questions - "So what?" - has begun to raise its ugly head.

There are some wryly elegant pieces of writing to arrest the eye-glazing:

I could have reminded her that she liked me well enough once to let me sleep with her, but thinking it over, it seemed not so much imprudent as irrelevant in a household where allegiances were formed along bloodlines and kinship, and where truth was determined by those elements of fiction most likely to offer the day its happiest conclusion.

Perhaps Ian Kennedy Williams could push his ideas, and his characters, a little further next time.

GRANT CALDWELL'S STORIES possess all the whimsy of pre-adolescent "compositions". The title story is narrated by a doormat (sic) disguised as a sportscoat, sitting in what seems to be a factory. He/she/it then abets a revolt against the management, and there is a breakout. Another story describes a chicken farmer being taken aside by his hens, and given a good talking to about conditions in the coop.

The stories would have been charming enough had Caldwell been born in 1977, and not 1947. As it is, one is left with 207 pages of syntax that grates like old synchro, and plots that disappear into nothingness.

In Home Movies, for example, a man's wife and child vanish in a park. After a lengthy search for them, which seems as much of an ordeal for him as it is for the reader, the man returns to the park (still sans famille) and slides into a state of bliss, staring at cloud-formations.

The cover describes Caldwell's stories as "allegorical". Allegorical for what, one is prompted to wonder? It also educates us, in the way back covers do, that the stories "raise serious questions about the limited ways in which we live and think, the limited ways in which we deal with our dreams and with our imagination." This hardly seems the case.

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