Saturday, September 03, 2005

I would give ten years of my life

to have written a book like the one I've just read, The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. (I'm not sure how you can get hold of it, though--the author was kind enough to send me a copy that fortunately arrived my last day in New York before the move, he knows I am completely fixated on his books & that they are incredibly difficult to obtain in the US--which is LUDICROUS. There is no better crime fiction writer around--in fact I will just venture to say there is no better novelist around. This is seriously good stuff.)

Temple is an amazing stylist: I have commented before on his charming way with a hyphen ("The vinegary couple from the newsagency were in their shop doorway, mouths curving southwards. Triple-bypassed Bruce of the video shop was beside saturated-fat dealer Meryl, the fish and chip shop owner") and his excellent use of technical vocabulary and his general all-round greatness, see here and here for previous posts. His writing's also extremely funny (in a dry way amidst lots of violence and general dark-night-of-the-soul atmosphere), and he brings to fiction a top-quality journalist's understanding of the workings of money and power and land and the seamy side of human nature. But they're also great books about family and depression and despair (aren't they sounding cheery? No, really, they are the most delightful books) and the protagonists are curiously endearing, they make human bonds in spite of their jaundiced view of the world. I guess the thing that blows me away is what an all-rounder Temple is as a fiction writer (plus his writing's perfectly to my taste, I know some people like more extravagance but I prefer things that look deceptively plain at first glance): he's good at character and dialogue and description and sentence-writing and plot and setting and intellectual heft and politics and just EVERYTHING.

I have loved all his books; the only one published in the US is Identity Theory [published in Australia under the rather better title In the Evil Day], but it's well worth ordering a used copy of one of the Jack Irish ones via Abebooks or getting hold of any of the others by hell or high water--i.e. impossibly high overseas shipping charges.

This one's as good as the others in terms of its being a very great pleasure to read, but it shows a new level of ambition that puts it in the "great Australian novel" category--his others are seriously good books too, in other words, but this one's an absolutely amazing thing. Here's a passage I especially liked, but you can find things this interesting and striking and beautifully written on every page (this one just has that expert-knowledge vocabulary thing going, which I especially love). Cashin is the protagonist, a homicide detective wounded in a shootout where his partner was killed, now on leave & camping out in a ruined house in the countryside, and Rebb's an itinerant hitchhiker guy Cashin picked up after he camped out on someone's property and took home rather than turning in for vagrancy, although Rebb still won't tell Cashin his real name. Here they're building a fence:

After that they strung wire, four strands, bottom strand first, working from the middle strainer post, using a wire strainer, a dangerous-looking device. Rebb showed Cashin the knot used to tie off the bowstring-taut wire around the post.

"What's that called?"


"The knot, the wire knot."

"What's it matter?"

"Well," said Cashin, "no names, the world's all grunts and signs language."

Rebb gave him a long sidelong look. "Called a strainer hitch, you've got no use for that name. Have a look for mine?"

Cashin hesitated. You didn't talk about things like this. "Your name? Had a look, yeah. That's my job."

"Find anything?"

"Not yet. Covered your tracks well."

Rebb laughed. It was the first time.

They worked. The dogs came, interested, bored, left, other things to do. When they were finished, it was almost mid-afternoon, no food eaten. Cashin and Rebb stood at the high point and looked down the line. It ran true, the posts straight, the low light singing silver off the new wire.

(Charmingly the dogs are black standard poodles, a particular favorite of mine.)

There's one strange copy-editing glitch, an "I said" where it should be "Cashin said" that makes me wonder whether this book was first drafted in the first-person voice and then rewritten in the third. I love first-person narrators, but there's no doubt that part of this book's success is in the scope you get from moving outside--though not too far outside--the main character's head. This book's a model for me, I've got to do one more rewrite on my novel (I was disheartened to read Philip Roth in the Sunday Times Book Review talking about how he rewrote his earlier books 5 or 6 or 7 times only because he didn't know what he was doing and a really good novelist knows how to do it right the first time--at least that was what I took away from it) and it's also got a third-person limited voice that sticks extremely close to the main character's point of view but that I haven't quite got working yet, the character's emotional life stubbornly refuses to open up enough to the reader. Hmmm....

Posting is likely to be sporadic here in the first half of September: as well as being depressed by hurricane news and wiped out by moving, I've got all the work that I didn't get done before I left NY to catch up on. Most pressing, two book reviews, but a lot of other stuff too, including a fun last-minute invitation that I couldn't resist although it means coming back to NY sooner than I expected (well, that was probably part of the appeal) to lecture on Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and fact and fiction in the early days of print journalism to the students in the new MA program at the Columbia School of Journalism. So not too much novel-reading in the short-term future, I fear.