Prose Style for Unleashing A Howl: Australia's Tim Winton
By Patrick McGinty
Verb placement is a tedious thing to track. As I look back on my embarrassing spreadsheets, the findings are less interesting than the selection of books. For (what I can only assume were) reasons of consistent randomness, I charted the first paragraph of non-dialogue prose in their third chapters. The first book in my old spreadsheet is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:
It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal. I watched a good-looking girl walk past the table and watched her go up the street and lost sight of her, and watched another, and then saw the first one coming back again. She went by once more and I caught her eye, and she came over and sat down at the table. The waiter came up.
The main verbs fall in the 2, 2, 2, and 3 positions respectively, meaning the average verb location in Hemingway’s paragraph is 2.25 on the impeachable Dork-McGinty Scale. Next in the spreadsheet is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
Here the verbs appear in the 2, 8, 8, 5, and 10 positions, meaning an average of 6.6., but already there are footnotes cropping up in the spreadsheet. Should hyphenated words count as one or two units? What about first names with a last name? And how do you deal with contractions? A key or legend was never made. I gave up right when things became interesting.
I did chart a few more books, though. In the third novel I forewent the third chapter/first paragraph rule. Instead, I chose the opening lines of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, his most beloved novel:
Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living. Yachts run before an unfelt gust with bagnecked pelicans riding above them, the city their twitching backdrop, all blocks and points of mirror light down to the water’s edge.
The first sentence is a sort of imperative question, the second lacks a lexical verb, the third comes right back with a simple and immediate subject-verb, and more importantly: who gives a shit? Why not simply bask in that language?
inton has given readers plenty to bask in. He has written eleven novels, four short-story collections, and a handful of plays, children books, and essay-cum-photography texts. He has won the Miles Franklin Award (think Australian Pulitzer (I think)) four times. He’s been a Man Booker Prize nominee twice. There are now awards named for him in Australia. The country views his books as curriculum-grade and essential.
American readers unfamiliar with Winton’s work might start with Shallows or Breath, both coastal-set works that feature such diverse concerns as whaling and surfing. The Riders gallops all over Europe in search of a lost mother and Cloudstreet crams two families into one rickety old house outside of Perth. I read Dirt Music with alarming quickness and actually considered how plausible it would be to become an amateur fish smuggler.
Or, readers could jump in with his latest novel. Eyrie confirms several things:
—that Australians—specifically literary Australians—are terrific, generous people, as evidenced by Eyrie finding its way to my doorstep with minimal effort on my part (the U.S. release isn’t until 2014, meaning U.S. readers will technically be “jumping in” in June, though Picador is re-releasing a newly designed version of Cloudstreet in the states in late November).
—that Tim Winton has a distinct and evolving prose style.
—that this style (and the quiet, aging fury bellowed into it) probably deserves more attention from more Americans.
yrie’s Tom Keely is “a man hauling his own corpse through a swamp." He has lost his job as a prominent environmental activist, he’s divorced, and he now lives in a cheap skeleton of a high-rise apartment building from which the novel takes its name. A woman from his youth lives there, too, both of them older, the woman saddled with a peculiar grandson. Funds for each of them run dry. Never-do-wells haunt the novel’s edges threatening to wring out what’s left. And though at times it can be easy to see Eyrie as more cat-and-mouse than Winton’s slower, sea-and-sand-bound tales, it would be unwise to mistake this as a “fast” book. It’s something of a slow page-turner, if that makes sense.
To wit: it starts with a thirty-page hangover. An incredible hangover. A sad and hilarious hangover. Winton has retained his occasional verblessness, but he’s shifted the sentence length from lyrical to curt. Struggling with his post-activist malaise, Keely wants to be “Safe. All he wanted. Was to be safe. In his flat. In himself.” Getting fired was “a mercy, a cold-turkey intervention. For which a man should be grateful. He was well out of it. What had it all been anyway but one long fighting retreat?” These sentence shards stagger around for much of the novel, and when the language unwinds and expands, it is not to capture Cloudstreet’s “bagnecked pelicans.” It is not in the name of “dreamy briny sunshine.” Instead, Keely sees the premier “ore deposit in the world,” “China’s swaggering enabler.” The city of Fremantle lays below his apartment:
Good old Freo. Lying dazed and forsaken at the rivermouth, the addled wharfside slapper whose good bones showed through despite the ravages of age and bad living. She was low-rise but high-rent, defiant and deluded in equal measure, her Georgian warehouses, Victorian pubs, limestone cottages and lacy verandahs spared only by a century of political neglect. Hunkered in the desert wind, cowering beneath the austral sun.
Whereas his other characters are often submerged diver-style in their worlds, in Tom Keely, Winton has created perhaps his first protagonist who has seen the world from a great height, both metaphorically and literally. Keely has been made sick by the view. Both author and narrator are disillusioned but staunch environmentalists, men who wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was immoral how the nearby Cappuccino Strip had “calcified into smugness,” but they’ll certainly circle the idea:
Somewhere along the way the good folks of the port settled in the wisdom that coffee was all the culture and industry a town required. Butcher shops, hardware stores, chandlers and bakeries had steadily been squeezed out and surplanted by yet more cafes, new spaghetti barns. Rents were extortionate, house prices absurd. The city had become a boho theme park perched on a real estate bubble, and behind every neglected goldrush facade and vacant shopfront was a slum landlord counting pennies, lording it over a family and bitching about refugees.
It is at times jarring to see a writer as graceful as Tim Winton bemoaning “sun-fucked” locals in “gossiping knots” with their “high, late-life bellies,” but as a writer who for thirty years has made his name juxtaposing the rhythms of humans against the rhythms of the natural world, Winton has clearly felt the need to elevate his own volume and pace amidst the radical changes wrought on Australia by the coal industry. For Winton, Eyrie is a chance to write as though both his country and his name are at stake. For Americans, it’s an occasion to hear simpatico frustrations colored with Aussie quips. Keely advises himself to “Just give it a mo.” “Marsupial innocence” is by far my favorite use of an adjective this year.
The artistry and anger in Eyrie made me feel less silly about those spreadsheets from my youth. It bears repeating: when I wanted to quantify style, I chose Hemingway and Fitzgerald and picked Tim Winton third. Hemingway’s terse, punchy style is well-documented. Ditto Fitzgerald’s lyricism. Winton to me still represents both. His terse sentences can withstand the unforgiving Western Australian landscape, and at any juncture, they can unwind into a distended, lengthy cheer. He can now unleash a howl. He is far from giving up.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies.