TOM Keely is a man overboard, a basket case of a human being on the threshold of social and spiritual oblivion. Then a woman comes into his life and disturbs the comfortable ache of his wretched existence in the high-rise, low-rent bolthole he calls home. She offers him a chance, of re-engagement, perhaps of redemption.
With some writers this could spell trouble, a story arc from central scripting. But in the safe hands of Tim Winton – twice Man Booker shortlisted, four times Miles Franklin winner, and a National Trust of Australia “living treasure” – there’s no need to worry. His latest novel is one of his best. Visceral, wry, emotionally complex, it’s a propulsive yarn that seamlessly connects the intense microcosm of its characters to something much bigger, like a meditation on the state of his nation.
Not so long ago, Keely was an environmental crusader, a TV talking head who became toxic after he accused a politician of corruption. His wife had an office affair and his marriage collapsed. Now, “skint in every possible sense”, he gazes out from his seedy apartment block in the port of Fremantle, Western Australia, his lonely eyrie of jaded righteousness, popping pills to control the tremors and headaches, get some sleep, stagger through the days.
Enter Gemma Buck, who has fetched up in the same tower block with her grandson Kai. The boy’s drug-addled mother is in jail, his father is a vicious, small-time crim. Gemma was a neighbour from Keely’s childhood in the suburbs, in the days when his colossus of a father used to defend Gemma’s family from their own abusive patriarch.
Gradually a relationship of sorts develops between Gemma and Keely, who cares for Kai while she works stacking supermarket shelves. One night, the six-year-old, an “island of self-possession”, tells Keely, “I knew you, I knew you before you had a face.” Here are hardscrabble lives more authentic, more damaged, than Keely’s own, and he starts to entertain the idea that to embrace this fractured version of family might shake him out of his stupor of middle-class self-pity, rescue his shattered masculinity. “The idea was intoxicating. It made a man feel enormous and substantial. That he might be necessary.” Perhaps he can be more like his dead father, Nev, “a holy fool with hands like mallee roots and a heart while it lasted as big as a beer keg”, a fool who Keely still yearns to emulate.
Thus Winton sets the plates spinning and delves into his trademark themes of violence, family, class and community in Western Australia, the setting and inspiration for his fiction for 30 years. Eyrie takes place during the financial meltdown of 2007-8, a crisis that never touched Winton’s mineral-rich home state. But he pitches the white-hot economy in his own backyard as nothing more than the other side of the same neo-liberal coin, a juggernaut that tramples anything that crosses its path – civic ethics, environmental regulation, everyday decency – and leaves a trail of low-wage drudgery and anomie in its wake.
With Keely’s deliciously mordant snarl as his vehicle, Winton lets rip. Western Australia is “the nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, a Leviathan with an irritable bowel.” Fremantle is a “boho theme park perched on a real estate bubble”. And there is no stopping the train. “It was the boom of all booms and in a decade it had taken hostage every institution from government to education. There was pentecostal ecstasy in the air and to resist it was heresy.”
When Kai’s father finds out where Gemma lives and starts to squeeze her for money, their tentative new world quickly unravels. Keely knows he is
no saviour in the mould of Nev; ultimately he knows that Nev himself, paragon of a previous generation’s working-class virtue, neighbourliness and charity, was often more honest than useful. Keely’s mother Doris, a smart, sympathetic presence throughout the novel, tells him, “To save a drowner you need to be a swimmer. Remain a swimmer.” Yet unhinged and ineffectual as he is, it’s not advice that Keely is likely to take.
This is a tale packed with black humour, tragedy and pathos, driven by the fast-moving prose of its unreliable narrator and an exceptional ear for dialogue. Winton serves up no easy redemptions, just asks tough questions about emotional risk, connection and trust, and idealism and community in a brutalising world. West Australian in his bones, he once compared writing to surfing. When the waves show up, he said, you must turn around and ride that energy to the shore. Winton’s caught big waves before, with Cloudstreet, The Riders and Dirt
Music to name a few. With Eyrie he’s hanging ten.