I've just finished reading Robert Drewe's latest collection of short stories, The Rip, and know that I won't be able to get it out of my system for a long time. It's a hardback of thirteen stories, one or two of which I'd already read in journals or elsewhere, though they take on an even stronger resonance in this context.
The stories hang together beautifully, though the only recurring "character" is the setting, mostly on the Pacific side of Australia, but there's a bit of the West in there too, in the devastating "Stones Like Hearts", which takes place at Shelly Beach, covered in stones "after those savage winter storms off Cape Leeuwin, where the Indian and Southern Oceans collide in a maelstrom of tides, spindrift and stinging winds..." (p. 77). It's a story that demonstrates excruciatingly the kind of thing life is too short for, that places the petty but cruel interactions that can happen between human beings in the context of a larger, more anonymous darkness -- but I'm misrepresenting here, because the story's also imbued with Drewe's typical satirical humour -- aimed frequently but not unkindly in these stories at the "New Age" element -- deftly offsetting the pain.
Drewe doesn't focus only on the quasi-hippy/New Age/finding-oneself brigade; he's equally sharp-eyed yet still fair toward the conservative farming type alongside whom they often live in these stories -- in fact, in some instances, these divergent social sectors have to pull together despite themselves, or end up doing so out of self-interest of one kind or another.
It's impossible to pick out favourites in this collection, because though there's great variety within the thematic cohesion, they're all, to my mind, of an equally high standard. Drewe accomplishes in prose fiction what I often (perhaps my limitation and not the genre's!) think is only possible in poetry: the suggestion of so much more than is actually told. That's not to say the writing is "poetic" in the sense that people often intend when they complain of "poetic fiction" -- the diction is clean and muscular, to the point, carefully chosen and "clear" enough to please any reader.
But over and above (or even underneath) this beautiful clarity, there's a metonymic expertise that makes each story greater than itself, that points up for us aspects of our society, our psyche even, that are in need of facing. On the most minute level, a tree or a plant or an animal in this work is at once specifically itself and of its region -- Drewe's an artist of precision, there's no bald, generic, lazy backgrounding here -- and also symbolic or suggestive of the human folly pressing in upon it from all sides (the camphor laurels of "The Lap Pool" are one example). The folly, however, is observed with enough neutrality that it invites compassion (the satire never strikes me as mean).
At the same time, there's genuine narrative drive and suspense, but I won't go into too much detail on that, because I don't want to spoil surprises. Drewe makes it look so easy. The Rip is perfect reading, if at the same time daunting for the would-be fiction-writer who reads it, and feels in awe ("why bother trying when he does it so well?").
Many of these stories explore a more or less middle-class milieu, but they are completely subversive of the kind of fiction I associate with the narrower version of middle-class taste, the fictions in which women are supposed to admire the "Sargassos" of this world ("Sargasso" is a character -- or a quintessence! -- in Drewe's final story, "The Life Alignment of the Coffee Grower", a caricature designed perhaps to put paid to any lingering fantasy of romance about the so-called S.N.A.G. who still pops up in women's fiction and movies. And even in life?)
I could say so much more about this book, but now I'm going to pass it on to a family member I know will love it...