Having read Wake in Fright a while back, I noticed a copy of this on the shelves and it’s definitely a small-handbag book, so in it went.
I read this immediately after a discussion on FB with my friend Linda which involved questions of what is ‘Australian’ and what is ‘racist’. And here I was on page one of this, plumb in the middle of exactly that. The central character is a fisherman in a coastal town, a little Aussie battler, I think would be a fair characterisation, and dagoes are giving him grief. He and his mates despise the Italians. But that doesn’t change how one acts when one has to. When an Italian on another boat goes overboard, he does everything he can to save him. Racism is more complex than a lot of people make out: perhaps they are still waters that run deep. Jack’s off-sider in this is an Aborigine who sees himself as less than white people but definitely superior to the Italians, by the way.
The Italian’s death opens up an opportunity for Jack to go for broke, buy a boat he can fish for tuna from, instead of the piddling small catches which are his lot to date. I can see why this is compared with The Old Man and the Sea. It feels like a sea adventure book written by somebody who knows his ground (so to speak). I couldn’t put it down.
But laid over the adventure, the story, the how-tuna-are-caught detail, is the Australianness of the thing. Cook captures that so that you can see it, vivid, in front of you as you read. Once you get over the discomfort as he dives into the way in which White Australian, Italian and Aborigine relate – discomfort he wants you to feel – the strength of his writing is compelling.
Cook and Jacqueline Kent married in odd circumstances not long before he died. Having met him at a dinner party, a while later she was asked by a publisher to edit his Killer Koala stories. Cook called her: “Ms Kent, I am not used to being edited. My characters do not exclaim, they do not snort, wince in speech, respond, or chuckle or gibber. I don’t want you to change ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ to any of these things. Is that clear?” Quoted from SMH.
She is sarcastic in return, but the point is surely well made. To do this to his spare, to-the-point writing, would be a editorial crime. I haven’t read Killer Koala yet, but I’m hoping his request was followed.
I note how shabbily this notable writer is treated by goodreads. This particular book isn’t even listed. He deserves better, but I doubt he’ll get it. It’s most likely a ‘book you won’t read before you die’.