Tim Winton’s new novel hovers between a profane confession and a plea for help. A distinctly Down Under story by this most Australian writer, “The Shepherd’s Hut” is almost too painful to read, but also too plaintive to put down.
The narrator is Jaxie Clackton, a troubled teenage boy who lost his mother to cancer and suffered years of beatings from his drunken father. Jaxie has fantasized about killing his old man for so long that when he finds him dead in the garage, he panics: “They’ll say I kicked the jack out from under the roo bar and crushed his head like a pig melon,” Jaxie thinks. “It all points to me.”
Convinced he’ll be pursued by the police, Jaxie grabs a few supplies — including a gun — and runs north toward the salt lakes of Western Australia: “Pushing. Hauling. Going.” It’s not a bad plan except for the high likelihood of dying somewhere over thousands of square miles of desert, “the kind of country that’d boil your insides dry in a day.” But somehow Jaxie survives, and so what follows is a strange picaresque tale: Huck Finn on a moonscape.
It’s disappointing that Winton isn’t better known in this country (Australians revere him as a “living treasure.”) He’s been writing for more than 35 years and been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize. But perhaps for American readers, nothing attracts interest like actually living here, the way his fellow Australian novelists Geraldine Brooks and Peter Carey do. A movie based on his 2008 surfer novel “Breath” opened earlier this month, but the tepid reviews seem unlikely to inspire Winton mania in the United States.
So be it. Winton still remains in Western Australia, where he was born, and that long experience with the place and the language is baked deep into his prose. “The Shepherd’s Hut” rises out of this punishing landscape, “a place so empty a fella’s thoughts come back from it as echoes.” Winton dots that terrain with kurrajongs and kangaroos and abandoned mine shafts. “Everything you saw and touched out there looked like tetanus waiting to bite your arse,” Jaxie says.
What’s even more hypnotic than this deadly territory is Jaxie’s alternately proud and woeful voice, which Winton captures in a thick Australian accent spiked with slang and curses. Starving, dehydrated and often ill, the boy keeps stumbling across the arid ground as his thoughts spin back over the violence he’s suffered and — sometimes — committed. “Some nights there was so much feeling in me head I was glad it couldn’t get out,” Jaxie says. “You could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me.” From the moment he grabs your attention, he’s frightening and sympathetic, a wholly human creation by a writer who pushes hard on our ambivalence about aggressive adolescent males — these beings who are no longer children but not quite adults either.
Whatever Jaxie is, he’s a bracing figure of resilience, hardened by a home, a school and town all set against him. “I wasn’t what everyone thought,” he insists. “The thing with the teacher’s car come out all wrong. And the business with the crossbow, that never even happened.”
If too many contemporary novels strike you as effete and suburban, here’s survivalist fiction at its rawest from a novelist who sometimes sounds as bleak as our own Cormac McCarthy. “I was sitting round starving to death,” Jaxie says, before finally shooting a kangaroo and skinning it with a dull knife.
But this tale of tooth and claw is deepened by Jaxie’s abiding dignity. Fear of capture isn’t really pushing him across these hundreds of miles so much as his determination to reach a young woman he loves. Even that chivalric quest, though, is complicated. Possibly hopeless.
In fact, the tension between hope and hopelessness grows more taut in the second half of “The Shepherd’s Hut.” On his way north, Jaxie happens upon a corrugated iron cabin in which lives an old Irish priest named Fintan MacGillis. Jaxie would prefer to remain invisible, but he desperately needs water, and Father MacGillis desperately needs company. The relationship that develops between these two cagey outcasts is fraught with mystery and suspicion — and a degree of grudging affection that never slips into sentimentality. “He talked so . . . much it was like a junkpile he chucked at you,” Jaxie says. “You had to sort through all these bent up words.”
In the end, their words won’t matter, true or not. This oasis of security in the desert is a mirage, as Jaxie always knew. The sun and the salt bleach everything away until these characters are stripped down to their essence.
“What does that make me?” Jaxie asks. “Someone you won’t see coming, that’s what. Something you can’t hardly imagine.”
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post, where he hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Tim Winton
Farrar Straus Giroux. 267 pp. $26