Griffith Watkins (1930-1969) caught my attention in 2017 with his brilliant poem “Heatwave” selected by Tracy Ryan and John Kinsella for The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. I was drawn to the tragic outline of his life: a promising writer and popular art teacher who drowned himself in the Swan River two years after the publication of his debut novel. I’ve been meaning to read that novel for years and now I finally have.
The Pleasure Bird (1967) is an existential novel set in Perth. The novel’s hero, Brenton, is a teacher in his twenties obsessed with art, boxing, sex and death. Watkins piles tragedies onto Brenton’s shoulders. At age 12, he found his war veteran, former boxing champion father hanging in the shed. His mother became a cleaner to provide for Brenton and his brother, Frank, before her early death from cancer. A year before the novel begins, Frank is killed in the boxing ring when his opponent, Mick Gabriel, fights dirty. Mick Gabriel went to prison for three months; he’s out now and Brenton is determined to have his revenge.
The melodramatic piling on of tragedy has its purpose: it makes Brenton truly alone in the world, without connection to family. But it also makes me remember a strategy in my own first novel, The Fur: I realised I needed an external reason for my protagonist’s anguish and so I decided his mother had to die. I hadn’t lost anyone close to me at that point in my life and I had to imagine grief; largely my protagonist’s anguish was my own (non-grieving) experience of the world.
Brenton’s tragedies are complemented with frequent physical punishments through the novel, sometimes flowing out of his propensity to violence. In the opening section, he fights a man he finds objectionable at a nightclub. Later, he is beaten badly in a training match against a professional boxer and stays in the ring as the blows keep coming. When a lover, Karen, slaps him, he hits her back. His first attempted confrontation with Mick Gabriel ends with him being mauled by the man’s Alsatian dog.
It’s a constantly surprising novel, sometimes picaresque in Brenton’s encounters with minor characters. Brenton’s car overheats on a trip south and he stops at a cemetery and has a surreal conversation with a gravedigger about the afterlife. Brenton doesn’t give his own thoughts but seeks out the gravedigger’s opinion as someone who is close to death all the time. Later, he picks up Aboriginal boys who steal from him; this depiction doesn’t go past the stereotypes of its time and it’s painful to read Brenton’s racist reaction without any apparent authorial critique. On the way back, he picks up a priest and tells him about his uneasy and inconsistent faith.
Brenton’s quest for revenge is complicated by another, parallel tragedy when he crashes his MG into a train and kills his friend, Jack. Instead of swearing revenge, Jack’s widow, Billie, begins a romantic relationship with him, her advances having started while her husband was still alive. ‘“I don’t hate you for what happened,’ she told him. “Don’t ever think that, Brenton. It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone.”’ (p. 163) Billie’s forgiveness doesn’t cause Brenton to re-evaluate his own failure to forgive Mick Gabriel. Is it a complexity of character or a simplicity of characterisation?
The prose is fresh and plain even as Watkins is engaging with big ideas. He evokes Western Australia with all the senses and yet without any self-importance. ‘It had been a sultry afternoon and there were a dozen people in swimming. The sea was a dark olive-green with an oily skin to it. The smell of sand and the elements in the water filled his nose and mouth. They ran down and dived into the squat waves whisking up on to the sand.’ (p. 66) It is a literary tour of the state, describing Swanbourne, Fremantle, Perth, the South West and the north. Watkins is also skilled at describing the process of painting and the artworks themselves. The lengthy descriptions of Brenton’s works are engaging and the paintings come alive, including the eponymous ‘The Pleasure Bird’; I wish the publishers had attempted some sort of appropriate artwork on the cover instead of the boring blue text cover they settled on. There is clumsiness in the novel’s shifts to flashbacks—usually over-signalled with lines like ‘The bush and the driving began to release his memories again’ (p. 80)—but this is a quibble.
It is an odd combination, boxer and artist—a sensitive thinker who is always so quick with his fists. A part of me wonders if Watkins failed to choose between two very different characters. But another part of me sees this as part of the novel’s achievement, marrying a macho Australian stereotype with the sensitive artist in the one character. It happens; I’ve met a few men a little like Brenton.
Brenton ruminates on death and on how to live in the face of its inevitability.
All creatures, plants, all people die and it’s a bitter notion, haunting us half of lives, filling us with despair. And yet, it’s virtually impossible for me sitting here in the sun like this to grasp the reality of the fact that one day my bones will join the countless millions of others stashed away in the chuckling earth.(p. 128)
He feels the calling of the artist who experiences the world more strongly and vividly than most:
The insensitive bumble through life relying on their appetites to give their existence a rough meaning and the sensitive and gifted set themselves standards that in the end cripple them. Because they feel, they’re flayed by the harsh brutality of life. They pay for their extra ration of enjoyment of what this world contains by pushing themselves far out from their animal natures where no one can comfort them.(p. 128)
The Pleasure Bird ruminates on meaning and mortality but is apolitical. Brenton lives an untroubled affluence and has no class awareness; the narrator seems to lack it too. Brenton’s nemesis, Mick Gabriel, seems to be a working class character, marked by his lack of sophistication and his dirty fighting. In another instance we read ‘They talked politics while they drank their coffee,’ (p.30), but while many conversations are quoted, this one is not. The novel is set in the mid-1960s, immediately before its publication in 1967. (In one clearly dateable detail, Brenton remembers seeing the film 8 1/2  with Helen some time in the past. The movie was screened in Perth as part of the Perth Festival in the summer of 1964-1965.) Conscription for the Vietnam War began in 1964 in Australia but this backdrop of political turmoil is not part of the novel’s world. Brenton’s looming trial for manslaughter is a timeless existential predicament; being called up to fight in the war would have offered an existential predicament very true to the experience of many young men at the time.
I have focused on The Pleasure Bird’s shortcomings in a way that isn’t true to my experience of the novel. Its sum is greater than its parts – it carried me along with its vividness and sincerity. It’s a startling novel of angst pushing against the stultifying effect of suburban life in Perth in the 1960s. It carries in it both a determination to live fully and a foreshadowing of Watkins’ death.