The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton #review and my #reading in March

You’re a kid, you don’t know anything.

Mum said school mighta been different for me if I only give a damn. Maybe it was wasted on me like the teachers said. I didn’t have any philosophy in me then, so I didn’t know what to listen for. Most of it was pointless crap. Don’t reckon I met a single wise person all the years I stayed but like I say, I wasn’t paying close attention.

Jesus, I told meself, harden the fuck up. She heard me say that once, Mum. To me little cousin out by the laundry where he was bawling, his knee bleeding a tiny bit. She had that disgusted look on her face. What? I said. I didn’t do nothin. You’re no better than your father, she said. Listen to you, Jaxie, you sound just like him. I didn’t talk to her for three days.

The Shepherd’s Hut is a coming-of-age story that will likely remind many long-time readers of Tim Winton‘s earliest publications in the 1980s. His first novel, An Open Swimmer, has a male teen protagonist whose name starts with a ‘J’, an old man and a hut. These early stories revealed Winton’s ability to create an authentic Australian voice by employing a sparse vernacular that captured, rather than caricatured, laconic, mostly inarticulate characters. His skill as a novelist has yet to peak and this is an extraordinarily evocative story about masculinity, especially for young men.

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Winton’s latest novel is a first person narrative with a strong authorial presence and memorable characters. The Australian vernacular is well-rendered via his troubled teen protagonist, Jaxie Clackton, whose damaged longing for love is deeply affecting. Narrative voice is what Winton does so effortlessly, engaging the reader in the moment, moment after moment. Some may occasionally wonder how many teenage boys think, speak and feel as Jaxie does but the power of Winton’s writing never really has to coax the reader into the narrative, which is completely compelling.

Christmas didn’t start out so bad. Up until lunch everything was fine.

In the lounge room there were bowls of snacks everywhere, chips and Twisties, chocolate and stuff. And the house smelt of meat roasting but it was so hot in there and the A/C was on the blink. Auntie Marg was down from Magnet and me and Lee played cricket out the back with the littlies to get some air and keep them busy.

…don’t know if I can stand this bullshit another second. Having to pretend, sit there like a dumb animal all day and feel all this stuff and say nothing, do nothing. I didn’t want their stupid family Christmas. I didn’t want to be with any of them…

Winton has a genius for naming characters. We meet most during flashbacks in this novel. There’s Lee, who Jaxie loves and desperately needs to see. Kenny Chen aka Dogmeat, an almost school friend. Captain Wankbag, Jaxie’s name for his alcoholic father, a butcher whose malevolence makes his death more of a relief than a sadness. Many readers will find Jaxie’s experiences of Christmas and his father’s brutality particularly painful to read. Fintan MacGillis, the hermit that Jaxie meets in the shepherd’s hut is a particularly well-drawn figure in the landscape. Winton has often explored religion in his fiction and non fiction:

Fintan said he thought people were no more stupid believing in fairies than believing in the church. And even if I agreed with him, talk like that sounded pretty sour coming from a priest. But he had the shits with them blokes, that was clear.

Drug dealing worse than kiddy fiddling, is it? Stop that, now! There’s no need and you’ve no right. You think the Catholics care how they make their money? They bloody love gangsters, it’s their bread and butter. Good God, child, you wouldn’t know the half of it. You wouldn’t have the faintest notion.

Setting is always a character in Winton’s novels. The Western Australian landscape is harsh, beautiful and often sublimely described. The individual is always awkwardly present:

“Shanksing across that country you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake.”

The hut, and the surrounding salt marshes, are lovingly evoked. The reader sees the mirages, as the characters do. Eventually.

The language and exploration of masculinity is not the only reason this novel would be interesting to young men. There is moment after moment of recognisable, ordinary Australian life and landscape, writ large, that compels the reader to keep going down the road with Jaxie, and Winton.

Anyway the Chens left town one day without a word. Dunno why. I wish Kenny coulda stayed. By high school we coulda been Horsemeat and Dogmeat. We coulda reigned supreme, running amuck like two loser superheroes.

We was just kids, we did kid stuff. And we didn’t have things to do like people in the city. We couldn’t catch the bus to the beach or the movies or hang out in big shopping malls. We had to ride everywhere or shanks it. Go for a milkshake at the roadhouse, check out the tip. Because there was no KFC or Subway. We’d walk along the highway looking for eagle feathers.

My only real criticism of Winton’s novels has been a consistent one. For all of his brilliance, the resolutions to his stories often feel hollow, or cliched. It is almost like the spell he has written under lifts and one returns to the world of what a merely ordinary writer would do to finish the thing off. This novel has the same problem although, I can see it working in a film adaption.

Winton, in a recent interview, suggested a new hashtag to combat ‘toxic masculinity’. Ironically, for all the problems of using offensive terms for the female anatomy as abuse, he probably would have more impact on the target audience using this hashtag then something more polite or politically correct. It is hard to think about as these challenges seem insurmountable some days. Anyway, for the brave English teacher, with the appropriate class, hierarchical support and professional skillset, there is quite a unique opportunity to make a difference with the release of Winton’s new book.

The Shepherd’s Hut is a wise and knowing novel. Boys in secondary school should have it on offer in their classrooms. This is unlikely due to the raw, powerfully authentic nature of the prose, potentially misguided perceptions of political incorrectness and the use of expletives.  It is very difficult for schools to address issues of masculinity flexibly due to rules, or perceptions of where boundaries are drawn, for teachers in classroom discussion or choice of literature. Winton is prepared and able to explore language and life in our country honestly. We need to share this wisdom widely.

Highly recommended.

Other titles read during March

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) by James C. Scott

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor (2017) by Virginia Eubanks

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography (2017) by Lucy Worsley

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Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey (1821/2015)

Never Mind (Patrick Melrose #1) (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn

George Orwell: A Personal Memoir (1982) y T.R. Fyvel

Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature: Certainties in Degradation (2017) by Luke Seaber

The World of George Orwell (1972) by Miriam Gross (editor)

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