IF YOU’RE stuck for a conversation in Western Australia, ask a bloke about his car. In a state that covers a third of the continent, people are defined by their wheels. Georgie Jutland, the cheerful wreck at the centre of Tim Winton’s long-awaited seventh novel, drives into her new life in a canary yellow Mazda; her partner, lobster millionaire Jim Buckridge, purrs around after her in a ‘big, metallic gold, luxury-edition 4x4’; while the local racist (delightfully named Avis) cruises the coastal town of White Point in a ‘satanic white’ Toyota. Cars are agents of destruction, too: speeding gods kicking up dust. Luther Fox, the poacher who traps Georgie’s heart like a lobster in a pot, has lost his entire family in a rollover in his own driveway, and is now embarked on a "project of forgetting", in which "the only grace left is simply not feeling the dead or sensing the past".
The dead are never far from the surface in Dirt Music. Fox has a dream in which he swims in a sea of them; like the narrator of Winton’s recent story ‘Aquifer’, he feels the dead in his very water. Fox’s Western Australia is a land that remembers, and fleeing it is as likely as fleeing memory. It is a land imbued with music, too, where even the sand dunes seem to "thrum like a boiling kettle". For Fox, it is the music of the brother and sister-in-law who died in that driveway accident. It is a music he can neither listen to nor flee: dirt music, from the dead-thronged earth.
As a counterpoint to this primal drama, Georgie’s story can seem a little humdrum. She is an ex-nurse with a taste for Stoli and a fondness for taking her clothes off, except when she’s having sex - Winton’s description of her first romp with Fox in a Perth hotel stretches credibility, but snaps it back through pure tender verve. Georgie’s previous relationship ended with her jumping over the side of a yacht and swimming for shore, but in Jim Buckridge she has simply found another man concerned with managing his life rather than living it. In that respect, Luther Fox is a dream come true: a man who cries when she first touches him, who reads poetry and knows how to scrub a bath, and seems to carry secrets deeper than the ocean.
By any measure Fox is an exceptional creation, and Winton is sometimes in danger of falling victim to his own success. Georgie’s story can occasionally feel like a device for letting us tag along with Fox, a sort of strap-on battery pack for the thing that makes the lights and noise. But the lights and noise come from one of the most richly imagined journeys in modern fiction, and even Winton’s strap-ons are better than most people’s best.
The dramatic heart of Dirt Music is Fox’s flight from White Point and his journey to the remotest part of the northern coast. The dead, needless to say, are waiting for him. In one extraordinary scene, which few other writers would have the courage or imaginative power to pull off, Fox finally returns to the music he has denied himself and conjures his ghosts from the earth. Readers will make up their own minds about the spectacular finale, but they should get there at any cost. Tim Winton is the real thing: a writer who can photograph a thought and pluck out the beat of a soul on a washing line. His last novel, The Riders, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it would be a fair bet that Dirt Music repeats the trick.
Charles Fernyhough’s latest novel is The Auctioneer.