Why Tim Winton Is Streets Ahead

3 June 2024
Why Tim Winton Is Streets Ahead - Featured image

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet fully deserves its place in the IPA’s Australian Canon, argues literary critic PETER CRAVEN.

There is a strong case for seeing Cloudstreet (1991) as the greatest novel of its period, perhaps indeed since the death of Patrick White. When the famously astute and none-too-easily pleased English novelist Philip Hensher was asked what contemporary novel he would like to have written, he chose Cloudstreet. Why? Well, the book has an extraordinary seemingly effortless eloquence that dazzles and it also does this in a way that might well inspire awe in British readers, especially despite the fact it is about working people and it negotiates the delineation of class with an effortlessness that is enough to make you subscribe to the myth of Australian egalitarianism.

How Tim Winton achieves this ultimately is a mystery, but clearly relates at least in part to the fact that Australians of every kind do share some substratum of idiom and values that make Winton’s extraordinary achievement intelligible, even if the upshot is—let’s not beat around the bush—Shakespearean and God given.

Cloudstreet bends and twists and fractures ordinary notions of realism without remotely seeming a work that belongs with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, say, or indeed Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (also in the IPA’s Australian Canon).

Cloudstreet is the story of how the Pickles family is bequeathed a large old house on the proviso that they do not sell it for 20 years. Sam Pickles has only the stubs of several fingers because of losing them in a machine accident, though he is also a gambler with staggering good luck and there is much play in Cloudstreet about spinning a knife and the significance of where it stops with Sam. Sam is married to Dolly, sumptuous in her day but weather-beaten and not unaccustomed to kicking around with other men: she’s slatternly but shrewd. What happens is that the Pickles rent their inherited house to the Lambs (and, yes, Winton effortlessly bestrides the corny play on the two tastes combining to everyone’s benefit because he is so much the master, not the servant of whatever folksiness he wants to indulge because he is quite seriously a master of vernacular English who will bear comparison with the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn).

You marvel at where Winton’s simple words come from.

The Lambs are a respectable lot. There is Oriel, the woman who sets up the business that turns Cloud Street into Cloudstreet, a thriving business supplying food to the neighbourhood with great financial success. For reasons of her own she lives in a tent in the backyard. Oriel is married to Lester, a former copper and much given to singing songs such as The Wild Colonial Boy and doing, often lame, comedy routines. Their son Quick isn’t especially swift though he’s true blue, and then there’s Fish who is close to the heart of what makes Winton’s vision so panoramic and poignant at the same time. Fish was the cheeky adorable boy everyone loved, and then something happened:

Fish will remember. All his life and all his next life he’ll remember this dark, cool plunge where sound and light and shape are gone, where something rushes him from afar, where, openmouthed, openfisted, he drinks in river, whales it in with complete surprise.

He was dead and they knew it, but the woman beat the water out of him anyway. To little Lon, awake now with all the screaming, she looked like she was giving Fish a good hiding for his cheek. Quick heard her shouting at the Lord Jesus. Blessed blessed Saviour, bring him back. Show us all thy tender mercy and bring this boy back. Ah, Gawd Jesus Almighty, raise him up! Now, you raise him up! And Fish lay there in the mostly dark, eyes and mouth open, lurching like butcher meat as his mother set her fists to him: Lord Jesus Whump! Saviour Jesus … Whump! And she made sounds on him you only got from cold pastry. The old man on his knees weeping: Yairs, Lord, yairs! And the girls strangely quiet there on the sand with waterlap and prawnkick and the smell of mud and rottenness. Fish’s pain stops, and suddenly it’s all just haste and the darkness melts into something warm. Hurrying toward a big friendly wound in the gloom … but then slowing, slowing. He comes to a stop. Worse, he’s slipping back and that gash in the grey recedes and darkness returns and pain and the most awful sickfeeling is in him like his flesh has turned to pus and his heart to shit. Shame. Horror. Fish begins to scream…

But Quick held his brother’s head in his hands and knew it wasn’t quite right. Because not all of Fish Lamb had come back.

How does Tim Winton do this? God knows, but somewhere along the line it involves an utterly poised and self-confident ability to present stark situations of absolute and terrible emotional realism without compromise and with an openness to the language that inheres in the bloodcurdling pain and sorrow that comes with them. It’s pretty clearly dependent on a tremendous surging gift, at once acrobatic and athletic but with an uncanny feeling for what words will release the rawness of the emotion depicted. Winton is a writer with an extraordinary gift, but that gift coexists with a quality that has nothing to do with mannerism or—if you like—outstares the mannerism which gets tied up with it. You can argue there is magic in this realism, but it is not in the end tied up with fantastical depictions of enchantment but with a willingness to name whatever horror or heartbreak the essentially dramatic imagination of the novelist wishes to encompass.

For a folk novel Cloudstreet is remarkably precise about facts and dates.

There is a section of Cloudstreet where feckless Sam Pickles needs to borrow money from Lester Lamb in order to keep a group of very nasty crims at bay and instead Lester, against all his better judgement, goes along with Sam’s lunatic impulse to bet the lot and the madness works. Winton describes it in terms of cake and candles, and you marvel at where the simple words come from and the extraordinary Shakespearean (there’s no other word) way they trail.

This happens over and over in Cloudstreet. Rose Pickles gets a job as a telephonist and as a consequence meets a society journalist who fancies himself as a Rimbaudian poet. There is stacks of super clever talk—in one way in a different register from anything else in the book—but it illustrates Winton’s range. Then there is the scene when Rose (who has always had a thing about Quick) tears his clothes—well, they both do—off him.

It is such a weird thing to have made an epic full of sorrow and scathing detail which is at the same time so full of the splash of water and the glory of a world of fish on every side. – literary critic Peter Craven

They marry, she loses the baby, and sinks into a depression miserable beyond words and this too is conveyed with a wholly convincing grim power. Her mother Dolly who is failing (at 63 or whatever) insists Rose come and see her and—loathing her mother—something somehow melts.

Here is a bit, more or less at random when Lester goes along with Sam:

Lester laughed and screamed and felt the crowd belting at his sides, and as the horses passed with a sound like a back-alley beating, he heard the reedy cackle of Sam Pickles and little else. As the stragglers stumped past the post, the crowd was already sighing and it felt to Lester Lamb like the last finishing moments with a woman where heat suddenly turned to sweat and power became fatigue. It was like sex, alright, and he was thrilled and ashamed and he couldn’t have stopped laughing for all the love in heaven. Blackbutt! the man with the PA yelled. It’s Blackbutt, by crikey!

Cloudstreet is a book where a pig talks in tongues (to Fish), and nobody comes to have any desire to eat him.

Here is Rose and her mother:

I used to wish you wouldn’t grow up to hate me, Rose. That’s what I used to think. Rose’s lips were set together, as though she was exerting great control over herself. And then you grow up and hate me anyway. Well, yer have yer hopes. Rose folded the newspaper, then folded it again. Hoping is what people do when they’re too lazy to do anything else. People can’t do everything they wanna. They just want some things more than others. Dolly sighed. Okay, so you hate me, let’s leave it at that. I’m sore. Did you hate your mother? Dolly got up. I need to lie down a while. You didn’t answer. Me whole face is fallin off.

I’m gonna love my children, I swear to God. Lookit this. This is what you get from men. Some men. Other men! All men! Dolly didn’t have the fight in her. Any other time she’d have been across the room, tearing and slashing, but she felt weak and giddy. You shouldn’t hate me, she said, turning for the door. It doesn’t help. Ya shouldn’t do it. Like you say, people can’t do everything they wanna. Anyway, I’m used to it now, Rose said, as Dolly went out the door, and then suddenly she was shouting: And besides, I’ve gotten to like it. Hating you is the best part of bein alive!

There’s an absolute attention to the notation of feeling together with the ability to present it, no matter what the cost. There’s a whole section of Cloudstreet about a serial killer who is killing everyone in sight. Quick and Rose go back to Cloudstreet for relative safety. The killer has been demonised but turns out to be a thwarted ‘ordinary’ loser of a man. Then his son dies in an accident. The people are unforgiving enough to refuse the murderer’s last wish that his hanged body be buried next to his son. It’s a book which celebrates—is that the word?—every diminished thing. Rose and Quick decide to go away together, and Fish who is now a stout man of 30-odd, much given to thumping pianos and sometimes difficult to deal with, pleads to come. Quick is adamant he shouldn’t but Rose capitulates: well, why not, he’s his brother. At some point Fish loses control of his bowels and Quick has to wipe him. It is difficult to imagine any other novelist who would get away with the stench and wrench of everyday life with such a sureness of touch and lightness of step.

The power of the characterisation is clearly aided by the schematics of the two families, but the optimism of the vision if that’s the word is remarkable and is that of a dramatic artist who can look on tempests and not be shaken.

Illustration by John Spooner.

Rose reads her Daphne du Maurier and her Irwin Shaws (which figures) although we are told on her special holiday—despite the encumbrance of Fish—she is going to read Anna Karenina. Is this a bridge too far? Not really.
The book encompasses, glancingly, World War II (and memories of the First) and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For a folk novel (or the semblance of one) it is remarkably precise about facts and dates.

There has been a TV version of Cloudstreet (with Essie Davis among others) but the crucial moment on the way to its canonisation is probably the Neil Armfield stage version circa 2001. It was revived in an imperfect version by the Malthouse in 2019 which nevertheless retained some sense of the narrative punch which inheres in the material and is intrinsically dramatic.

It is not hard to see why Cloudstreet commands the attention of readers near and far because it is two kinds of family romance yoked together with no excess of sentimentality, but with that mysterious quality that resembles sentimentality—a sense of communion? A sense of sanctity?—which can seem like the music of how things are. No one sells Cloudstreet or gives it away. It is one novel we know Julia Gillard read and it is both weird and heartening that a book as radically a testament to a brilliant quasi-bardic talent should be so intimately amenable to popular taste. It is a cliche to say so—because it’s so manifestly true—but Tim Winton is, on the basis of this book, the greatest Australian novelist of his generation and Cloudstreet is a book of such manifest greatness that the accolade can be carried further than that. Given the comparable mystery shown by Eyrie and his short story collection The Turning, there would actually be a case for saying he is one of the very greatest novelists Australia has produced.

Tim Winton is, on the basis of this book, the greatest Australian novelist of his generation.

It is such a weird thing to have made an epic full of sorrow and scathing detail which is at the same time so full of the splash of water and the glory of a world of fish on every side. Cloudstreet is a book that is continuous with every aspect of its author’s vision. It is discernably not rhetorically a Christian novel and it radiates the honouring of the good together with—no matter how much it costs—the love of the neighbour as the face of the self.

If you wanted a distillation of the power and the glory of what is treasurable, this book is, against all the odds, a winner. That’s how the knife spins and it is a remarkable thing how it inhabits an artfully constructed world—Lamb and Pickles, for God’s sake—as the face of the true. Tim Winton is heading towards his mid-60s now and you can, if you wish, say some fraction of his work is uneven but Cloudstreet does the nearly impossible thing of justifying its every word. We should do everything in our power to ensure this funny and profoundly moving book is on every syllabus in sight. It sings, it slashes, it presents a comprehensive image of life very few works in our literature come near. It was easy for a long time there to back away from its superficial sense of folksiness. It is in fact with a reverberating grandeur a true book of the folk and it makes the reader think the life we all know—like so many immigrants, so many wanderers and condemned souls—has rarely met with such mimetic power and such ability to stir laughter and tears.

Peter Craven, literary critic and commentator, co-founded the literary magazine Scripsi, and was founding editor of the Black Inc. Best Of annuals and of Quarterly Essay.

The IPA published its Australian Canon in the Spring 2021 edition of the IPA Review. It was produced as part of The Genius of Australia project, housed within the IPA’s research and communication program The Centre for the Australian Way of Life. More information and articles including Peter Craven’s commentaries on Patrick White and Peter Carey can be found at www.australia.ipa.org.au

This article from the Autumn 2024 edition of the IPA Review is written by literary critic PETER CRAVEN.

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