Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Book Review - Wake in fright by Kenneth Cook

Wake in fright by Kenneth Cook

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967              ISBN 0140024050

The impending release of a recently discovered manuscript by Kenneth Cook has led me to finally read his most recognised work; recognised mostly due to the film version of the book made in the early 1970s, which rapidly gained a cult following and has received praise from luminaries such as Martin Scorsese. In fact if you mention "Wake in fright" most people will assume you are referring to the film, and many may not even realise that it was originally a book.

And it is a powerful book in its own way. The story is relatively straightforward - John Grant is a schoolteacher who has been posted for two years to the outback school of Tiboonda. The book opens on the last school-day of the year, and John is looking forward to getting back to Sydney for the holidays. It rapidly becomes clear that he hates his position at the school, and is longing to return for good to the coast. He travels by train to the local city of Bundanyabba in order to catch a flight to Sydney the next day.

However, he ends up losing all his money in a two-up game, and faces the prospect of spending six weeks stuck in "the Yabba" without any money. It is at this moment the story really takes off ; John finds himself mixed up with various locals, miners, hunters, alcoholics and engaging in drinking binges, barbaric kangaroo hunts, and possibly other (barely hinted at) sordid activities.

Determined to get to Sydney, he begins hitching, only to find himself back in Bundanyabba, where, driven to his lowest point he attempts suicide. After some time in the hospital recovering, the end of the novel finds John back on the train to Tiboonda ready to face the new year.

The book and the film have been read by many to be a comment on the brutality and lack of culture of inland Australia - in the introduction to the Text Classics edition of Wake in fright, Peter Temple posits that for Cook the outback was a "variation of hell...the ability to be at home in the 'bleak and frightening land' is a flaw in the outback's people. There is something wrong with them for enduring this harsh place. They are not the innocent victims of the lonely, arid land; they have made an unnatural choice to live in it that reflects their own stunted, even perverted, nature."

However, I think there is also an alternative reading here. If there is a judgement going on in this book, it is the judgement of others, and the landscape, by Grant, not the other way around. When he finds himself penniless in Bundanyabba, he is befriended by Tim Hynes - again it is Grant that does the judging in this relationship, not Hynes, who buys him a drink and takes him home to feed him. He spends the night at Doc Tylden, who puts him up and looks after him. In conversation, Doc reveals he moved out west because he knew that as an alcoholic he could live out here and not be judged and ostracised as he would be in the city.

Grant's love interest in the city, Robyn, is unobtainable by him because she, like Grant, has certain standards, which Grant can not meet. So, it can be argued, I think, that it is the denizens of the coast that are at fault here for not being able to accept difference, rather than the locals creating a sort of hell.

As Cook writes toward the end of the book, Grant got himself into the situation of being penniless and without a place to stay - it was his foolishness in the first place that led him to lose all his money, not any malice from any local.

All of this is not to deny that Cook doesn't write the book in a way that emphasises the harshness of the country and the people. The kangaroo hunt in the book is written in such a way as to emphasise the casual cruelty and brutality of the locals; their mindless boosterism of their town to the exclusion of others and disinterest in the activities of anyone or anything not connected with them are fair indications of country Australia. And yet the same could be (and has been) written about city life in Australia as well.

I haven't read much about the life or thought of Kenneth Cook, but I would suggest that Wake in fright is more a moral tale of an individual than necessarily a comment on the people of the outback. Whatever it may be, it is a great story written with a lot of tension, and well worth an hour or two of your time.


 Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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