Whether it’s the news that China has used more cement in the past three years than the United States did during the entire 20th century , or the United Nations’ warning that without aggressive action a climate tipping point could occur within 15 years, fighting for the environment these days must feel like a Sisyphean labor. It’s enough to drive Tom Keely, the antihero of Tim Winton’s enthralling ninth novel, to the brink.
Until recently Keely was a leading environmentalist in Australia, the spokesman for the activist group WildForce. But after seeing even his allies turn against him when he accused a member of parliament of corruption, he’s persona non grata: unemployed, divorced, embittered and at 49 looking like a strip-mined wreck: “Above the wildman beard he was all gullies and flaky shale. Badlands. His wine-blackened teeth the ruins of a scorched-earth retreat.”
The site of his retreat is a squalid apartment, the eyrie of the title, perched on the top floor of the 10-story Mirador. It’s the ugliest building in Fremantle, “gateway to the booming state of Western Australia. . . . The greatest ore deposit in the world. The nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler.” Keely passes his days nursing hangovers and avoiding the news. “Didn’t matter which rag you read, it would be another installment about the triumph of capital.” He stumbles through the scorching streets, and fixes his sardonic gaze on the materialistic citizens of the city, “a boho theme park perched on a real estate bubble.”
Little happens at first. Keely notices a stain on his rug and wonders where it came from. He keeps forgetting where he’s been, what he’s supposed to do; pockets form in his memory, like sinkholes. The beginning of the book is fueled by the force of his cynicism, his anger over the state of the world and his own lost idealism, and by the astonishing, limber prose that has made Winton one of the most celebrated writers in Australia.
Then an improbable coincidence triggers the plot: Who should be living on the same floor as Keely but his childhood crush, whose own hard knocks have landed her just down the hall. Gemma is the great beauty of his old neighborhood, Blackboy Crescent. But now her family is in shambles: no parents, a daughter in prison for drugs, assault and theft, and at the age of 44 already a grandmother, caretaker of a strange, intelligent 6-year-old boy named Kai.
Of the many achievements of this extraordinary novel, one of the most remarkable is the way the past gradually spills into the present. Winton has created a protagonist who fades in and out of lucidity and often can’t remember his past. Keely drinks too much, goes for long stretches without sleep, then crashes on a cocktail of pills. He has blackouts, public fainting episodes. He feels “abstracted from [himself],” his head is “boggy and slow,” and on more than one occasion he worries that he might be losing his mind.
His shakiness puts the reader in the position of listener or therapist, gathering snippets of background to assemble the full story, all the while anticipating trouble ahead. And there is no shortage of trouble. Keely falls into bed with his old crush. Kai’s drugged-out father tries to extort money from Gemma. Keely, who regrets not having children, becomes an unwitting father figure to Kai. And the boy, obsessed with drawing birds, keeps walking out onto the balcony of the Mirador and peering down as if considering flight. His pictures grow increasingly disturbing; he has nightmares about dying and confides that he’s certain he’ll never make it to old age.
In a book full of terrific characters and sharply drawn relationships, the most memorable is the bond between the broken Keely and the seemingly doomed Kai. It’s heartbreaking, but never sentimental, reminiscent of the father and son in another great environmental novel, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” With the world falling apart all around him, Keely recognizes, at last with total clarity, “This was his chance to mean something again.” Gather what family you have and carry on.
Shreve’s fourth novel, “The End of the Book,” was published in February.
By Tim Winton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 424 pp. $27