John Kinsella Old Growth 254pp Transit Lounge, 2017. Review copy supplied by publisher.
John Kinsella’s new short story collection, Old Growth, is a wondrously Western Australian book, centred on the wheatbelt with regular trips to Fremantle, the suburbs around Bicton on the south of the river, and up to Geraldton. Yet its pleasures are not just in its sense of place, but its capturing of so many different ordinary lives lived in these places.
My favourite is “Selling Desk Sets in the City.” It’s a deceptively powerful story, with a descriptive and unexciting title and rather plain start, the opening paragraph an exposition. It’s the early nineties, and Brett needs to take the sales job or he’ll lose the dole. He’s pressured by his sales partner to get “hyped” and visit “contacts” he has in the city to try to sell them the “plastic moulded desk sets” with “a peculiar little globe of the world which… looked as if the map would peel off in quartered orange-peel-like segments.” In the end, they call on the mentor Brett hasn’t seen in years and he’s forced to reveal to the mentor how low he’s fallen. It’s devastating. What lifts the story further is that it’s bookended with Brett’s conversations with the old orchardist neighbour hanging onto his land on the edge of the suburbs near Armadale. A lesser story might create a cosy contrast between the lost rural idyll and the impoverished CBD, but in this story it’s more complex; the orchardist “suffered from many ailments, which he attributed to the pesticides he’d been using for decades – including DDT, an old drum of which he still possessed. Though he complained about the effects of the toxins, he kept using them.” There is no idyll and if there’s hope, it’s in the sense that it could be an older Brett narrating the story and he’s come through this dark period of his life. “He wondered what kind of rehabilitation this was part of, or whether it was the calm before a storm, or if none of it meant anything at all.”
A recurring theme of the collection is the friendship of teenage boys. “Cheating the Periodic Table” and “The Telephone” are placed next to each other, two versions of the same dark story of a teenage boy coming to the horrific knowledge of his friend’s sexual crime. Both are excellent stories, capturing the competitive, uneasy friendships of teenage boys; the mix of longing, ignorance and crudity in their sexuality. Other stories add to the exploration of these friendships, including “The Coffin,” and, fittingly, the final story, “Licence.”
I read “Fried Breakfast on the Road” while suffering food poisoning, which was a terribly appropriate, as it’s a great story of suspense as Alvin tries to hold down his fried breakfast on a long bus-ride to Karratha in the winter of 1974. It conveys not only the experience of such a bus-trip so well but the perspective of children negotiating the grown-up world.
To give some sense of the range of the collection, “The Boy Who Read Marvell to the Sheep” shows the mischievous, experimental side of Kinsella’s writing. Its tone and genre are both hard to pin down, as it combines melodrama and horror with a novel’s worth of action in three snapshots from the life of the intense, socially awkward protagonist and his connection with sheep and his twisted relationship with his mother and uncle. Then there’s the “The Hannaford Grader Man,” the story of a colourful character of the wheatbelt who seems jolly but alone. Secretly, he lives for the three penpals he has corresponded with since he was nine-years-old. Instead of turning sentimental, this is a sinister story with something of the tone of Roald Dahl’s macabre adult stories.
Old Growth is a fine companion volume to the 2015 collection, Crow’s Breath. Taken together, the two collections are a tapestry of Western Australian lives across decades, ages, and class lines. They range from the well-crafted conventional to the experimental, and yet they also feel they belong together. These collections are two of the best entry points to Kinsella’s vast oeuvre.