Thursday, 5 June 2014

DAVID IRELAND The Glass Canoe (1976)

Penguin Books Australia, 1976

'The study of drinkers,' he orated, 'is the study of a dying race.'  He'd had too much to drink.  'Hopefully, the results of my surveys and questions and calculations will illustrate the dimensions of the drinking problem.  And I mean hopefully.  It is entirely possible that all drinkers can be helped from total reliance on alcohol to independence of the drug.  For it is a drug problem.  Society has a good number of well-educated, well-qualified, well-disposed humanitarian people who will be prepared to give time to help, to raise up those who can't kick the habit by themselves, to reform the drinker, to absorb him into the main body of society, to integrate and assimilate him into the mainstream of Australian culture.'  Digging his grave with his tongue.
  'What's so crook about grog?' said the Great Lover.  Love of alcohol oozed from every pore.
  'Alcohol oppresses you all.  It ties you in to this way of life.'  Sibley waved a thin arm round to indicate the slopped red bar, the decrepit chairs that so often doubled for weapons, the punched door, broken glass, the cracked glass doors at the back of the pub, the hills and hollows in the pub yard, the browned paint on the rafters and high ceiling of the saloon bar, the sight of Alky Jack bent over his glass and Danny playing football in some corner of his head that still worked.

The Novel:  Imagine an Australia where children as young as five were allowed to play all day unsupervised in the streets, slaughtering butterflies with BB guns in weed-infested carparks and what were, back then, acres of vacant semi-rural paddocks.  An Australia where there was no internet, no such thing as the mobile phone or the iPad, and a Rank Arena colour TV represented the apex of 'new' technology, coveted by many but available, as yet, only to the rich and privileged few.  An Australia where men routinely started drinking at 10am and kept it up for twelve or more hours, then drove home stinking drunk to downtrodden wives who served them re-heated meat and three veg for their tea or, if they had 'the shits,' might choose instead to dump the entire steaming mess over their ungrateful chauvinistic heads.  An Australia where the first Labor Prime Minister we'd had for twenty-three years had just been fired on the orders of a distant and far from universally beloved British Queen and the only 'foreign tucker' you could buy was what was on the menu at your local Chinese takeaway.

Imagine this Australia – or try to remember it if you're old enough to do that– and you'll already be deep inside the world of The Glass Canoe, David Ireland's third novel published by Macmillan in 1976.

For Lance (better known as 'Meat Man' or simply 'Meat' thanks to his impressively large penis) and his mates the Southern Cross Hotel, their local pub in the working class Sydney suburb of Northmead, is more than just a place to unwind with a few cold beers after a hard day's work at the cheese factory, the golf club or the nearby Clyde oil refinery.  It's their own sacred watering hole, a keenly guarded fortress that outsiders –– anyone, that is, who hasn't been unanimously accepted as a member of their particular tribe –– are actively and sometimes violently discouraged from patronizing.  'It was home,' Meat, their self-appointed historian, proudly notes.  'The world and history passed by on wheels.  Life stayed outside.  Babies were started, and born.  Weddings, shootings, promotions, dismissals, hungers, past and future – all were outside.'  The pub is their cocoon, their sanctuary from a world they distrust and defend themselves against by getting drunk every day, floating away on the 'river' of beer contained in the 'glass canoes' that are their quickly emptied and frequently refilled schooner glasses.  But it's also, as Lance later reflects, 'an illuminated tomb.  A sort of past solidified in masonry.  The traffic tried to run by all the faster to stay in the present or the past might grab them.  But to us, our tomb was where life was: outside was a world fit only to die in.'

Death and violence are continuous presences in the lives of Meat and those – The King, Mick, Serge and Ronny, Alky Jack, Danny, Ernie, the barmaid Sharon and even the PhD candidate Sibley who believes it's his mission to enlighten and reform them –– who think of the Southern Cross as 'home' and drink, fight, argue, philosophize and fornicate in and around it seven days a week.  If the beer doesn't get them, then they might just as easily die in a car crash or from injuries sustained in the next pub brawl that's sure to break out the minute a stranger no one likes the look of strolls into the bar and they decide it's time he made himself scarce.  

What matters in this world is a bloke staying true to his mates and not doing anything to disappoint or disgrace them, which generally means being there day and night to help defend the honour of 'the Cross' from interlopers and anyone else unwise enough to cast aspersions on it or its loyal, beer-swilling patrons.  It's a hard and brutal life in which a bloke works –– if he has a job at all, which many of the pub's regular customers don't –– purely for the pleasure of being allowed to drink himself legless after he's 'knocked off' for the day.  Concepts like ambition and striving after respectability have no place in an environment like this.  While a kind of rough and rugged beauty may occasionally be stumbled upon out in the pub's weed-choked yard or within its battered walls –– the butterflies skipping and dancing as they try to evade the kids' BB guns, the memory of women slept with and sometimes genuinely loved, the sight of ten glass canoes filled with 'new' or 'old' or 'Pilsener' lined up on the bar, waiting to be imbibed –– even this is filtered through the comforting haze of alcohol and the violence which becomes the means by which the various members of the tribe most often choose to assert their individual and collective masculinity.

The Text Publishing Company, 2012
The Glass Canoe has no plot to speak of and features nothing that could truthfully be described as a traditional narrative line.  Telling a traditional story in the traditional, scene-by-scene way is not Ireland's intention here.  He's interested in revealing aspects of this world to the reader, but only –– and the distinction is an important one –– aspects of it.  Nothing is ever fully explained, just as nothing is or ever can be fully explained in what we laughably call 'real life.'  As Nicolas Rothwell comments in his fine introduction to the 2012 Text Classics reissue of the novel:  'It's art, not entertainment;  action, not plot The book makes up a tapestry: many perspectives, many actors, their words, their breathing, the way they mesh and move.'  This mosaic technique can be difficult for even the most gifted of writers to successfully execute and even more difficult for their prospective readers to follow, yet this is never the case with The Glass Canoe.  By keeping its language informal and colloquial, Ireland manages to make the lives of these men accessible even as he conveys their pain, their humour, their social and political opinions and the small victories and epiphanies they experience in ways that, more often than not, seem closer to a kind of post-modernist blank verse poetry than mere nuts and bolts, he said/she said prose.  This is a world the writer had personally experienced and obviously knew intimately, a world he was no doubt eager to record because it reveals an Australia very different to the 'sunburnt country' depicted in the tourist brochures and the bulk of what was officially recognized, in the 1970s and still in 2014, as representing this country's 'contemporary literature.'  

Meat and his mates are not sun-bronzed Aussie heroes.  They don't live in the bush, earning the right to drink themselves to death because the work they do is tough and unrewarding but is helping a raw young nation to make its fledgling way in the world.  Theirs is a completely urban, post-industrial society – in other words, the society that 95% of us now think of as 'normal' and, for better or worse, live and work in every day.  It's a monotonous wasteland of cheap public housing and intersecting motorways where mundanity and the lack of possibility remain the only constants in lives which are notable, if and when they become notable at all, for their utter lack of notability.  

Yet none of these men –– and, to a lesser extent, women –– have time for self-pity.  Obscure and seemingly futile though their lives may be, they prefer to focus on the idea that life is there to be lived and not to be discussed, studied, analyzed or lamented over.  Indeed, their one genuine connection with the Australia of their colonial forebears is their larrikinism, their ability to spot bullshit when they see and hear it and their instinctual willingness to identify it as such.  The humour might be dark, even savage at times, but that doesn't prevent The Glass Canoe from being an outrageously and sometimes hysterically funny novel.  Its final scene, where Meat and his mates engage in an all day brawl which all but wrecks the Southern Cross and leads indirectly to its demolition, could have come from Rabelais or straight from the closing chapters of The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West's eye-opening, equally excoriating dissection of 1930s Hollywood. 

The Southern Cross Hotel is more than just a decaying suburban pub, a relic of a bygone era which seems ripe for demolition and overdue for re-development.  It symbolizes Australia itself –– a place where friendliness can easily turn to violence (especially under the all-pervading influence of alcohol), where the myth of mateship has been used for over two hundred years to disguise and even excuse the inherent parochialism and xenophobia of what was, though many prefer to forget it, an artificial society formed almost entirely of criminals and the brutalized and brutalizing guards who had been sent out here to supervise, discipline and –– if the propaganda spouted by the British government was to be believed –– 'improve' them.  Nor is it an Australia which has totally vanished, not even in the age of yuppified hotels where licensees now serve cappuccino and biscotti to their well-heeled, upwardly mobile patrons and proudly serve quiche and other French delicacies in what used to be called their 'snack bars.'  Vestiges of this rambunctious working class world can still be found in the poorer, less attractive parts of Sydney and our other capital cities and also, to an increasing degree, in many of our economically depressed, rapidly emptying country towns.  

If it's true that the poor will always with us –– which, unfortunately, very much appears to be the case –– then it's equally true that the drinkers will always be with us as well, reminding us that this country is no 'luckier' in social and psychological terms than any other socially and economically repressive Western nation.  Every Australian male knows that nothing erases the taste of hopelessness and failure like a big cold beer.  The problem, then as now, is that the relief provided by alcohol only serves as a temporary balm to what's an ever aching, ever festering wound.  Sooner or later, frustration, hopelessness and the thirst they invariably inspire will send us lurching back to the bar to buy another round, then another and another, until the temptation to express our contempt for the world by smashing someone in the face with a glass or cracking their skull open with a chair becomes too appealing to ignore.  That's Australia, past and present, and there's no better or more reliable guide to what makes it tick than David Ireland.

The Writer:  David Neil Ireland is only one of four Australian novelists to have won the Miles Franklin Literary Award –– the country's most prestigious literary prize –– more than twice.  He won it first for his 1971 novel The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and again in 1976 and 1979 for his novels The Glass Canoe and A Woman of the Future.  

The fact that an author born in 1927 in Lakemba, an unfashionable working class suburb in inner western Sydney, who never attended university and was employed, among other things, as a greenkeeper, a factory hand and an oil refinery worker before taking up his 'new' career in literature is astonishing in itself, given the literary culture of Australia during the early 1970s (and, it must be noted, today).  It was a decade of change and Ireland, it could reasonably be argued, was entirely representative of that change –– a working class writer who wrote high literature that was read and praised by a largely middle and upper class audience whose ignorance of the world he described was matched only by their desire to view themselves as being socially and financially distinct from it.

Ireland began his career as a poet and a playwright, with two of his plays –– Image in the Clay and The Virgin of Treadmill Street –– receiving their Sydney premieres (and only known performances) in 1960 and 1967 respectively.  His debut novel, The Chantic Bird, was published in 1968.  The story of a disaffected teenager whose hatred of contemporary society is balanced by the tenderness he feels for his younger siblings and the girl who cares for them, it was described by the reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald as being 'One of the most remarkable novels –– first, fifth or fifteenth – to appear on the scene for many a long day.'  His second novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, based in part on his own experiences as a worker at Sydney's Kurnell Oil Refinery, saw its forty-four year old author greeted by the critics as a startlingly original voice when it appeared in 1971, with the reviewer for the National Times calling the book 'A harsh and remarkable work[that] will leave you shaken mildly or terribly according to your life experience.'  Ireland's third novel, The Flesheaters (1972), was set in a Sydney boarding house and saw his writing compared with that of American satirist Kurt Vonnegut, whose similarly bleak vision of humanity at the mercy of an uncaring, consumer-based society was never quite as damning as that of his lesser known but equally gifted Australian counterpart.

Ireland's next novel, titled Burn (1974), saw him change direction to tell the story of an Aboriginal man whose sense of identity is rooted in his desire to serve in 'the white man's war' (ie. World War Two) rather than in his vanishing tribal past.  The book was universally praised, with critic Neil Jillett of the Melbourne Herald describing it as 'possibly the most important book ever written about Aboriginals.'  It was followed in 1976 by The Glass Canoe, which won Ireland his second Miles Franklin Award.  A Woman of the Future (1979), a novel which explores the sexual and emotional life of a young girl via her private diaries, was once again praised as a unique and profoundly affecting work, with fellow novelist Patrick White singling out its 'Immense originality, wit and gritty wisdom' and stating that, in his opinion, 'David Ireland has reached the top.'  The book went on to become a bestseller and win its author his third and final Miles Franklin Award.

The next eight years saw Ireland publish three more novels City of Women (1981), the surprisingly whimsical Archimedes and the Seagle (1984) and Bloodfather (1987), which was loosely based on his own Lakemba childhood.  While each book was generally well-received by the critics, with Archimedes and the Seagle going on to win the 1984 Gold Medal from the Australian Literature Society, none managed to replicate the bestseller status of Ireland's previous work, leading to an undeserved decline in his reputation which unfortunately persisted with the publication of his tenth, poorly-received novel, The Chosen, in 1987.  Ireland has not been able to find a publisher for his work since, although he's never stopped writing.  'I don't live or die by whether things are published,' he told journalist Stephen Romei in typically unpretentious style in a 2012 newspaper interview, 'I live or die by whether I want to keep writing, whether I am able to get up in the morning and write.  That's what I do, seven days a week, I get to my desk and work, and try to think.  I love it.'

Ireland was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1981 for his 'services to literature.'  He continues to live, and write, in New South Wales and, thanks to the republication of The Chantic Bird, The Glass Canoe and The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by The Text Publishing Company as part of its ongoing Text Classics series, is beginning to regain his well-earned reputation as one of the most original, challenging and undeniably gifted writers that this or any other country has produced.

Click HERE to visit the DAVID IRELAND page at the Text Classics website. 

Grateful acknowledgement is made to PERRY MIDDLEMISS whose Larrikin Literature Pages website provides an excellent source of information (often the only source of information!) about DAVID IRELAND and many other unjustly neglected Australian writers.  Any factual errors this post contains are entirely my own. 

You might also enjoy:
MALCOLM KNOX A Private Man (2004)
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)

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