Tim Winton’s most recent fiction is yet another amazing work. The narrator is a teenage boy who begins his story telling that his father has once again beaten him, leaving one eye swollen shut. Later Jackson returns to find his father had died when the car he was repairing collapsed on him. Jackson, believing he will be accused of killing his father, runs in hopes of getting far enough away to make a new life.
The story tells of his struggle to survive in the wilds, what it takes to find water and food to eat, and where he must travel to remain invisible to those he believes will look for him. I could feel the pleasure of the author thinking about what is required to survive with the bare minimum of equipment, in the worst circumstances. But of course the story couldn’t be maintained on that basis for long and Jackson encounters another person living in almost complete isolation near a former shepherd’s hut.
The man was a defrocked Irish priest and the teenage boy does not initially trust Fintan. Though it becomes clear that is not what got the priest into trouble, we never learn how and why Fintan has been forced to live in the wilds of Australia for seven years with only the twice annual infusion of vital supplies. The connection between the two does make for great conversation as reported by the often mystified Jackson.
The most irresistible aspect of the book is Jackson’s language. Often, words are shortened: Jackson himself becomes Jaxie, a generator is a genny. When he found his father under the car, he saw the lift was away from the vehicle, and as he reported, “It was plain as dog’s balls, I didn’t even get down on my knees to check, maybe I should of to make sure and take some satisfaction from it, but I already knew the old turd was cactus.” Huh, “cactus.”
My favorite passage comes after he and Fintan have worked out their routines.
In the middle of the morning a string of emus come in from the salt and stood watching me and Fintan as we twisted out washed sheets and hung them on a wire at the mill tower. They give us this horrified look, like what we were doing was some weird ugly shit, what Fintan called crimes against nature, but emus are total goony birds. They always have that shocked look on their faces and they can stand there and stare for hours, the dumb buggers. They just parked out in the sand flat and peered at us as we strangled the water out of innocent laundry and it was funny for awhile, then they got on me tits and I chased them off with a lump of wood. I don’t know if I did it from plain shittyness or because there’s nothing like seeing an emu run.
Jaxie is made more sympathetic by his devotion to his beloved cousin; it is his hope they will be able to reconnect far away from their family and make a life together. Though there is a violent encounter with thoroughly bad characters, Jaxie believes he can make this happen. Why doubt it?
Tim Winton, The Shepherd’s Hut, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries.