Tim Winton's tale of toxic masculinity is a parable for our time

by Russell Baillie / 11 May, 2018
Tim Winton: didn’t intend “to stumble out there into the cold light in the middle of #MeToo”. Photo/Denise Winton/Getty Images

Tim Winton: didn’t intend “to stumble out there into the cold light in the middle of #MeToo”. Photo/Denise Winton/Getty Images

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Writing a dark novel about a 15-year-old misogynist sociopath tested Australian writer Tim Winton. Now it’s out, he’s troubled the boy’s toxic masculinity is all too real.

Tim Winton is a man of many talents. Writing mostly. But he can also back a trailer. His parallel parking isn’t the best, he admits, but reversing with a boat or something else hitched to the back? No problem.

“Maybe because it’s all arse-about – that’s probably why I’m good at it,” says the veteran Australian novelist and literary institution.

When we speak, he’s in Brisbane on a book tour – ‘‘rendering comfort to the comfortable” – for his latest effort, The Shepherd’s Hut. The trailer-reversing question springs from near the end of the book: the main character, Jaxie Clackton, a troubled teen on the run in the West Australia hinterland, encounters some city blokes up to no good.

They attempt a hasty getaway that requires them to reverse a horse float. They jack-knife. They dump the float. Jaxie sneers at their ineptitude.

It’s a moment of light relief in the story, which starts out as a picaresque road novel about Jaxie heading for the hills on a voyage of survival and self-discovery after the death of his hated abusive father and turns into a grim thriller.

Jaxie narrates throughout, as he flees his country town into a wasteland of abandoned mines and salt flats. On the edge of one parched lake, he encounters Fintan, a seemingly exiled Catholic priest living in a remote hut. Between dinners of kangaroo and goat, they strike up an uneasy alliance.

Both bear resemblances to characters in some of the writer’s previous 11 novels. This one also sticks more pins in the Winton map of Western Australia. There have been teenage boys in his books before, including his Lockie Leonard kids’ book series about an adolescent surf rat.

Jaxie, though, is a real piece of work. He’s not only the compelling centre of possibly Winton’s darkest, most violent book, but also a vivid example of the toxic masculinity the writer has been talking about on his book tour: boys like Jaxie, who are raised on machismo, misogyny and neglect, “join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism”.

Small-town boys, he says, like the ones that surfer Winton shares the waves with near his home in a remote spot north of Perth, tend to adopt the values of their dads, uncles and grandfathers – “and it’s a little bit frightening when you think, ‘Man, haven’t we moved on – have we not got further than this?’

“These kids make themselves up as they go along a lot of the time, and they use the spare parts that are closest to hand, and often they’re defective parts. Boys are projecting and rehearsing their idea of what it is to be a bloke. And unless people are giving them some feedback, they just adopt what’s the loudest and most common. And, sadly, that’s a nasty version of masculinity.”

It must be interesting bringing a Jaxie into the world at a time when the likes of #MeToo are gripping the culture.

“Well, you don’t say,” he says with a laugh, explaining that he finished the book then put it on ice for a while, thinking the world didn’t need yet another so soon after his 2016 memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain.

“So, I certainly wasn’t intending to stumble out there into the cold light in the middle of #MeToo and all that. So, yeah, it’s an odd time to be showing up with a book that lends itself to this kind of discussion even if the book itself isn’t that discussion.

“Still, it’s a weird time to be writing in the voice of a 15-year-old misogynistic sociopath.”

The book started the way his others did. “I just follow the ecological logic of a place – the geography and the characters bubble up out of the place.” Jaxie, his foul-mouthed racist urchin, showed up and he thought, “Well, okay, we’ll see where this goes.”

Writing in Jaxie’s blunt, profane old-before-his-time voice and seeing the world through his blinkered eyes was a challenge, even for Winton, whose writing has long crackled with Aussie vernacular.

“He’s a bloody handful, this kid, in many ways. But just in terms of being trapped in that consciousness and trying to work with it, he was a handful in more ways than I could have anticipated.

“I’ve got this kid saying all these ghastly things that I would never say in real life that I am finding myself putting on the page.”

The book’s desert setting, the priest, the initials of its main character, its contemplation of life, death and the bits in-between may suggest it is a religious parable, something that Winton, who has described himself as an “existential Christian”, has faced before.

“I didn’t set out to write a parable, but I guess I understand why people are drawing their own parables from it. But they’re going to do that with me anyway. It wouldn’t matter if I was writing about a musical based on lunch boxes: people are going to find some sort of biblical resonance there in the lunch box; if you peel back the Tupperware [lid], there’ll be manna in it.”

Also, it’s not the first Winton book to have generated comparisons with those of American Cormac McCarthy for its sense of geography, and its violence. Winton has met people who’ve done doctoral theses on the parallels between his novels and McCarthy’s.

Director-actor Simon Baker in Breath with actors Ben Spence as Loonie and Samson Coulter as Pikelet. Photo/Nic Duncan

Director-actor Simon Baker in Breath with actors Ben Spence as Loonie and Samson Coulter as Pikelet. Photo/Nic Duncan

“Mostly it’s a lot of kids in the UK and France and Italy and Spain. I just scratch my head, really. You just think, ‘Well, I might have done something useful, because if they get a good mark, then they get a job. So, I can feel good about that, even if I can’t understand what their thesis is on about or I disagree with it fundamentally. I mean it’s just a thesis, and like most people who write a PhD thesis, you can’t wait to be on the other side of it and disown it for the rest of your life.

“It’s just interesting the different ways that people come to your work and things that they see that either aren’t there or that you didn’t realise were there or that are surprising or completely bogus. But that’s culture for you. It’s strange and intangible and useless and yet necessary.”

The Shepherd’s Hut will be another of Winton’s novels that may get the screen treatment. Many have been adapted for stage, screen, puppet shows and operas over the years, including a 2013 anthology film of short-story collection The Turning, the 18 parts of which were helmed by what seemed like every director in Australia.

Winton says it’s going to be strange if a film of The Shepherd’s Hut is told in something other than Jaxie’s internal monologue. He thinks an approach light on dialogue like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas or Vincent Ward’s early film Vigil might work.

He co-wrote the script for Breath, the forthcoming adaptation of his 2008 novel starring and directed by Simon Baker, star of television’s The Mentalist. He’s seen an unfinished cut of the film: “It’s beautiful looking, that’s for sure.”

He visited the set. “I made the sort of obligatory visit like Prince Philip where everyone just sort of politely looks at you and waits for you to leave. I patted a few of the local natives on the head, said some slightly off-colour things about them and got back in the Bentley.”

Winton has never been worried how his books fare in other media.

“I try not to get too precious about the adaptations. I’m glad people are interested if it goes on to be a play or an opera or a puppet show or a film. That’s a different life that it has.

“It has a familial connection – it’s like a cousin, and you’re not always that close to your cousins, but you wish them well and if they do well in life you think, ‘Good on them.’”

THE SHEPHERD’S HUT, by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton, $45)

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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