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Fiction reviews


Robert Drewe - The Bay of Contented Men

24 October 1989

The Bay of Contented Men
Robert Drewe

Published in The Australian

A Literary Editor (not this one) once rang me and said, "That line of yours about the book being 'so nondescript there's not a lot you can say about it' - we'll have to take that out. You leave yourself wide open with a line like that."

The book concerned, Amanda Lohrey's The Reading Group, has now been pulped for defamation reasons - a blow to free speech if not to literature. The point I was making - perhaps badly - was that the book was not written quite poorly enough, nor were the characters or subject matter quite boring enough, to allow me in good conscience to prime the pen with vitriol. But neither did the book have a single quality which distinguished it from, say, mediocre journalism or applied doodling.

Robert Drewe's book of stories, The Bay of Contented Men, is not quite in this category, but invokes the same principle. Drewe is a competent if unexciting writer. The situations he rather tamely explores are not entirely without interest. His characters are relatable, if unremarkable. His philosophical positions are agreeable, but far from new.

Of course things do happen in these stories - it's just that they don't usually amount to much. In Machete, for instance, a man goes out to get the paper one morning, finds a machete on his lawn, speculates on its origin, hides it from his wife, goes to work, comes home to a darkened house, finds it gone from its hiding place, and concludes: "There is something more alarming than the presence of a machete. The absence of a machete."

The Lawyers of Africa is about a couple at a dinner party held by a lawyer who had been to Africa. Between anecdotes - a man-eating hippo, a camel which had somehow burst into flames - the wife tries to prod her husband into going home. He wants to stay. After the last anecdote she gets a taxi home alone. Ho hum again.

River Water is about the despair of Aboriginals living on an overcrowded settlement which is devoid of good water, with run-down housing and facilities - which drives good people to the brink of madness and suicide, and sometimes over it. It's accurate enough, no doubt - but it's all been told before, many times. At the least fiction needs to bring new perspectives to situations like this.

The Needle "Story" is a little better. Set in Perth, it is about a well-intentioned Chinese-Australian doctor who defrauds the Commonwealth of $173 by claiming acupuncture treatment on Medicare. He is arrested, gaoled, struck off, and his life and family naturally begin to disintegrate. The story is told, in part, through the unfortunate doctor's wife, and partly through the Ombudsman who is investigating what seems to be a miscarriage of justice. The word "Story" is in inverted commas in the title presumably because it really happened - which makes it rather sadder. In an attempt to embellish what is little more than a journalistic feature article, there are some sociological reflections on the qualities that go to make up Perth - bold entrepreneurs, the Asian influence, "a pioneer society" - all of which, nevertheless, could have been culled from 10-year-old newspaper files.

The Hammett Spiel is about a modern day would-be Sam Spade who conducts "Dashiell Hammett tours" around San Francisco. He is taken home one night by a young woman who has done a thesis on "The Proto-Marxist Influence of Dashiell Hammett on American Literature". He is made to perform sexually at the point of a Smith and Wesson model 39. Quite funny, quite inventive, and a welcome change.

All the Boys is about the lonesome death of Billie Snedden (who is referred to only as "the Minister"). Between the unfolding information - the Sydney motel room, the tabloids' "mystery woman", and inevitably the condom - there is another story in which the characters reading and gossipping about all this (essentially a couple and their lawn-mower woman) discuss the usefulness, or otherwise, of circumcision. The two stories, naturally, don't tie in very well, and neither is particularly compelling.

Radiant Heat is this collection's best story. Like most of the others it interweaves disparate segments of action - in this case a family at a holiday house, a drowned child on the news, an hysterical grandmother on the phone (she'd seen the news), bushfires, and a madwoman in an adjoining car at the petrol station on the way back to Sydney. But they add up to a pleasing wholeness - a believable, even original, vignette about family life in the eighties. Most of all this story is attractive because, in the language and in the choices of subject matter, it takes some risks.

Robert Drewe seriously needs to take some risks.

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