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Fiction reviews


Ranald Allen - Tennis With Jack at Warren's; Zeny Giles - Miracle of the Waters; Rosemary Creswell - Lovers and Others

14 April 1989

Tennis With Jack at Warren's
Ranald Allen
Allen & Unwin

Miracle of the Waters
stories by Zeny Giles

Lovers and Others
stories by Rosemary Creswell
McPhee Gribble

published in The Age

Droves of Australian men in mid-life crisis are these days being encouraged to embrace the fantasy that they are writers. This often results in a critical bloodbath, and a long, slow career-collapse, which is shattering for the author concerned - and which could have been prevented by a little early judgement on the publisher's part.

Ranald Allen presents himself, in this most recent example of the form, as such a vulnerable schmuck that giving him a bad review would feel like shooting a puppy. So maybe the publisher should get a serve this time. Surely Allen & Unwin know it is nearly impossible for good writers to make a living in this country. Why, then, do they give hope to the hopeless?

What happens in Tennis With Jack at Warren's? Of over-riding importance is that Ranald Allen plays tennis with Jack Nicholson, at Warren Beatty's place. This appears to be the most significant thing that has happened to him, which gives you an inkling as to what the rest of the book is like. Well, that's not entirely fair. The Introduction is promising:

The British story is that Captain James Cook discovered Australia in 1770 and then the first fleet under the command of Captain Phillip first settled it in 1788. The eighteen years when the continent and its Aboriginal inhabitants were left in peace for the last time - their breathing space - is the bicentenary I want to celebrate... I'll spin you a yarn or two of the eighteen years between 1970 and 1988 when I celebrated my own unofficial, unauthorised bicentenary...

All that follows, however, is a string of autobiographical anecdotes - some of which are, and some of which are not, as interesting as those you would hear in any Australian pub on any Friday night. Ranald Allen has trouble at school, goes to university, drinks a lot, feels confused about a career, falls in and out of love a few times, marries, divorces, gets into film-writing, and goes overseas.

The only evidence, albeit circumstantial, that Allen may have writing talent is that he has met with constant rejection from the Australian film industry. But what stands out in this book is (to use Bob Ellis's phrase) "the crash of surnames": Allen drops not only the names of Jack and Anjelica, but a host of local ones, from Kate Fitzpatrick to Arthur Dignam (who will probably sue over the section about him). David (Williamson), Bob (Ellis) and Frank (Moorhouse) all find nice things to say about the book inside the front cover. Hmm.

ZENY GILES' STORIES - her first collection - are at least more sensitive, and less self-centred. They are arranged like a mosaic around the central location, and motif, of the Hot Baths at Moree. They're little sketches of people who visit the place, and frequently refer back to the lives these characters have briefly left.

There's nothing special about Miracle of the Waters. The writing is competent, the characters believable if unexciting, and their daily dramas - for all the heroic Greek names - less than mythic. In The Questioning of Persephone MacDougall, a middle-aged woman is paid to take an elderly Greek widow to the baths and look after her. After a dip they go back to their cabin, watch Sale of the Century, and Persephone feeds the old woman some egg. At night the old woman wets the bed: she begs Persephone not to tell her family, or they'll put her in a home. Persephone cleans her up and - for lack of blankets - hops in next to her for warmth. Throughout all this, Persephone occasionally ruminates on her past - but that's as close as we get to any raison d'etre for the story.

Another tells of a male vistor to the baths, who has a sexual fantasy about a middle-aged woman he spies there. A third takes the form of a very prosaic speech by a retired Moree alderman, which lauds the baths' curative powers.

By this stage I was fighting off the desire to ensure the house wasn't on fire. The story Different Ways of Doing It momentarily revived me. In a conversation between a group of Greek men in the baths, the "It", in a clever twist, turns from sex into death. Each man tries to top the other with a story of how a friend or family member has died. In one, a deserted wife with weight and image problems goes to optometrists, dressmakers and beauticians. She becomes thin and desirable. One evening she lures her former husband around, away from his new girlfriend, for what the neighbours assume will be a seduction. "Let yourself in," the note on the front door tells him. He does, and finds her hanged from the beams of the new living room extension. Some of the other anecdotes are even better, and the whole story is infused with a gentle humour.

Then it's back to the predictable and the ordinary. Riddle is a reflection by a male narrator on word-meanings, and plays little word games with itself. It's pretty banal. The narrator mentions a couple of times that he is sitting in the waters at Moree, but these seem like afterthoughts. Indeed several of the stories have bits about Moree somewhat irrelevantly dropped in, so they will fit the theme of the book.

The cover illustration by Helen Semmler is superb. But you'd have to be fairly interested in hot water, or ageing Greeks, or both, to find this collection anything more than commonplace.

BY THIS STAGE I was fairly sure 90 percent of the characters in Australian fiction could be rolled into one without risking a personality disorder. Which is why I almost broke down and wept when I started Rosemary Creswell's stories. Her characters are very well-differentiated; and the stories are spare, original, funny, and above all interesting. By this stage I had thought "interesting" was off our national literary agenda.

At times you feel you know Creswell's characters personally, which is (in my opinion) an unusually good sign. The first story, about a 12-year-old who falls in love and forms a peculiar sexual bond with her policeman neighbour, possesses a plausibility that sucks you in from the first paragraph.

Hydro Majestic tells of the woman Clare (who appears in several stories, and may be a Creswell alter ego) taking her mother on a day-trip to the old NSW hotel. They have dinner, stay the night, buy some apples from an old man next day... Nothing out of the hat. But many of our less experienced writers could learn a lot from how Creswell deals with the everyday. Although Hydo Majestic is not as assured as her best stories, and ends discordantly, she infuses it with tremendous detail - keenly observed and often sadly funny - which makes the mother's quaint pre-War ways all the more recognisable, and Clare's frequent infuriation with her all the more real.

At Five in the Afternoon is about one of those extraordinary, outsized characters an author sometimes recalls from his or her youth. Such characters are usually male, usually based on a real person, usually die young - and tend to represent all that was special about the author's youth. Such stories seem to me a genre all of their own. One thinks of Waugh's Sebastian Flyte, David Malouf's Johnno, Alex from The Big Chill, and some of the undergraduate eccentrics from Clive James' memoirs.

This story's Nicholas Donovan is a worthy companion to all the above. He charges through life unrestrained by propriety or the law - amusing and astounding us for every second of his existence that we are privileged to share - and all the while retaining a most moving sensitivity to the life around him. It is hard to believe Nicholas Donovan did not once exist, and it's thus all the more sad when his meteoric span reaches its early end.

These stories are not flawless. Sometimes an ending will lunge for a "meaning" it could have done without, putting itself at odds with the body of the story. But the ending of The Launch (about a book launch) is so funny that any such quibbles will be quickly forgotten. These are the best stories I've read since Gary Disher's masterful The Difference to Me.

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