Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops for the night at the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (as happened with Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.