“I didn’t even get down on me knees to check. Maybe I should of to make sure and take some satisfaction from it, but I already knew the old turd was cactus. And it’s not as if I was crying any tears but it knocked me. I had to lean against the Hilus to keep meself up.”
Jaxie Clacton turns into the driveway of his home in a small, fly-blown town in Western Australia. Jaxie’s beloved mother has recently died of cancer. His abusive, drunken father – the town butcher; Jaxie calls him Captain Wankbag – can’t hit his wife any longer, so he hits Jaxie instead. Jaxie has no allies: a town needs a butcher, after all. And worst of all, the extended family has just torn him away from his girlfriend, who happens also to be his cousin. It’s no fun being Jaxie.
And now, standing in his driveway, he sees his father’s legs protruding from beneath his car. The jack has failed, the car has fallen onto his father and killed him – Jaxie sees lizard tracks in the blood – and in a moment, he realises that while this was an accident, the town will think Jaxie did it. So will the police, and so will the courts. Jaxie will go to jail if he hangs about – and with that, the boy turns and runs.
So begins The Shepherd's Hut, Tim Winton's austere and compelling new novel. Jaxie runs for the Australian wilderness, seeking a refuge and a hiding place: and the natural world becomes a silent witness to human frailty and grief, in all its manifold forms. Winton's work is always absorbed by nature, by land and sea and a bestiary of life. In his earlier work, including his brilliantly realised break-out novel Cloudstreet (1991), this world, for all its dangers, sparkles and shimmers with life. For Jaxie, however, the environment is harsh and brutal in the extreme: flies proliferate by day and moths by night; a longed-for water source is poisoned; a vast inland lake is no lake at all, but a dry moonscape of salt pans.
This environment has been desecrated too: humans have mined these landscapes, and the craters left behind are, as Jaxie observes, tailor-made for the safe disposal of human bodies. Jaxie himself leaves carnage in his wake: he shoots kangaroos, “cores” their loins and eats the flesh raw; as he staggers onwards into the interior, he leaves behind him a trail, not of breadcrumbs to guide him home, but of disembowelled ‘roos, left to bleed dry on the branches of gum trees.
And yet – as in all of Winton's work – there is a profound note of spirituality vibrating through this book. In Australian writing, the most appropriate comparison is perhaps with Voss, Patrick White's great novel of spiritual hunger and desolation. Ostensibly, Jaxie is a lost soul: he is in search of connection – and he does find a soulmate of sorts, a spoiled Irish priest named Fintan MacGillis who has similarly fled into the bush to escape his sins and his future. MacGillis is no abuser or rapist: instead, he fears excessive worldliness, and he has journeyed to this godforsaken place to live as a modern anchorite, in the style of John the Baptist. The priest recognises something in Jaxie: he names him the Wild Colonial Boy, connecting him to a rooted tradition of outback-dwelling, justice-seeking Australian outlaws – but as he wanders in the desert, and fasts, and dreams of love and a world of peace and perfection, Jaxie is in fact ever more Christ-like. He communes with nature too, in his own way: the wind switches to the north – and at once he can smell and hear distant danger approaching on the breeze.
Ghost of a future
Winton has created two models of masculinity in The Shepherd's Hut. The one is brutal and to all intents and purposes incoherent; it uses fist and belt to express rage; and it has the backing of society into the bargain. But Jaxie himself is a poet of sorts, in spite of his taciturn ways: his idiom is lyrical; and his life is a search for a different expression of how a man might live. And in the end, as he takes justice into his own hands, he begins to establish the ghost of a future for himself. "I know what I am now. And peace is on its way. It fucking better be."