A Review of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music

 Dirt Music is one of those books that gets under your skin. Comes into your bed with you; changes your dreams; travels with you throughout the mundane details of everyday life. Winton’s descriptive prose works both externally in its depiction of the natural land – the sea and desert of Western Australia which makes up its setting, and internally, in the way it goes deep inside the pain and anxieties of its characters, as they struggle to free themselves from tremendous damage, and paralysis.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Dirt Music
by Tim Winton
Pan Macmillan, November 2001
RRP A$46.00
ISBN: 0330363239

Dirt Music is one of those books that gets under your skin. Comes into your bed with you; changes your dreams; travels with you throughout the mundane details of everyday life. Winton’s descriptive prose works both externally in its depiction of the natural land – the sea and desert of Western Australia which makes up its setting, and internally, in the way it goes deep inside the pain and anxieties of its characters, as they struggle to free themselves from tremendous damage, and paralysis.

Like the landscape it takes its shape from, Dirt Music is big. As a novel, it is ambitious in scope, and at 465 pages, large in size, but it reads as quickly as a cheap airport novel with its strong narrative plot, and unrequited but compelling romance, as the reader presses forward for resolution while holding back to read and re-read the tremendously beautiful sentences. The main character is Georgie, a 40 year old woman stuck in a rut, a refugee from her previous career as a nurse, and living as a “fishwife”; the partner of tragic widower and father Jim Buckridge. Jim is the town’s well respected, well to do fisherman in White Point, a fancy “lobster money” suburb north of Perth on the WA coast. When one of Jim’s boys calls Georgie “stepmum” in a fit of pique, her world begins to unravel, and she begins a downward spiral of drink, drugs, and aimless Internet addiction as she tries to numb the pain of disengagement. During her sleepless night wanderings, Georgie discovers a “shamateur”, or fisherman who works without a professional licence, and begins to watch him. Her complicity with his illegal activities begins an unravelling of her shammed life. Lu Fox is the shamateur, a man clinging to his home town, but living in a submerged, living death after a tragedy from which he could not recover. His journey, and Georgie’s as they work through their demons, travelling the West, and moving towards some form of liveable, engaged life, together, or parallel.

The scenic description of the Western Australian landscape is rich enough to form a significant part of the plot – even a kind of living character, like the ranges which look to Lu “like some dormant creature whose stillness is only momentary, as though the sunblasted, dusty hide of the place might shudder and shake itself off, rise to its bowed and saurian feet and stalk away at any moment.” There is the world of the sea in White Point; its briny smells, the breezes, the feel of the warm plankton filled water, and the way its liquidity contrasts with the dry earth of the land just a few miles inland. As Lu Fox hitchhikes his way up the Great Northern Highway, initially towards Wittenoom, in a kind of pilgrimage to the mine where his father worked and contracted the mesothelioma which killed him, his vision of the land is exquisite, wrought, and precise, as he watches the “floodplain country” change to rich soil, and then to dust or grit. As they move further inland and away from the Sea, the towns become sparcer, and Lu’s visualisation turns further inward as he “Thinks of the north the old man spoke of with pride and fear in his voice, the rugged stone ranges, the withering heat, the ceaseless blasting and digging, the epic drinking that made the boozy south seem temperate, the cattle herds pounding red dust skyward and the seasons discounted to plain Wet or Dry.” One imagines Winton following the highway he puts Lu Fox on, taking notes about the landscape, and the reader is there, along with him on his seemingly aimless journey past the Pilbara where “everything looks big and Technicolor, to Port Headland, Broome, and finally off to Coronation Island, where Lu shipwrecks himself.

While the scenic description is constant throughout the novel, it never gratuitous. The land is a critical part of the story. Its scale, its age, and its permanence, and the discovery of its bounty, and arbitrary dangers are an important theme running through the book. There is the tree fall which kills Lu’s mother, and the bend in the road that takes his brother’s family. The ocean provides sustenance, both on a regular basis to the White Pointers, and on a makeshift basis to Lu on Coronation Island. The land also provides sustenance, but both the ocean and land won’t be tamed; domesticated. It resists man’s pretence at mastery: “You know the whole night’s still out there – the land, the sky and every creeping thing – and you understand how thin the fabric is, what a pissy pretence you hold to, but with your tent blown open you feel more exposed than if you’d lain down on your mat beneath the stars.” Lu and Georgie’s journeys are not only external ones, but also their inner journey towards some form of life which they can live in peace and happiness. Both are on the run from memory, and family ties; guilt and longing, and a sense of emptiness, which they have both created through either drink and drugs in Georgie’s case, or isolation and avoidance of feeling, in Lu’s case. Both have memories which taunt their dreams – Lu’s memory of his family, and their tragic accident, along with his minute betrayals, and Georgie’s memories of her nursing days in Saudi, especially Mrs Jubail, a woman whose terrible disfiguring cancer made a mockery of Georgie’s sense of power, and her ability to heal. Both Lu and Georgie are “rebels”. Georgie rebels against shallowness, against the shopping trolleys of her mother or well to do infidelity of her father. Lu rebels against licensing laws, against the unwritten rules of society, and both Georgie and Lu remain outsiders, unable to fit into the wealthy but uneducated fishing community Lu grew up in and Georgie inhabits. Both are readers, and thinkers, sensualists and romantics calling themselves pragmatists.

There are other important characters in the story. Jim Buckridge has his own secrets, his own anxieties, and his own half developed plan for redemption. His story is less compelling though than that of Lu and Georgie’s, and as a character he is less well developed. He doesn’t get his own point of view, so we see him only as the former bully and White Point hero who blames himself for his wife’s death. His concerns for his children seems abstracted, and his interest in Georgie, alternatively generous, and disinterested. Another interesting character is the lost Wundjat aboriginal music loving boy Axel, who provides Lu with his lifesaving canoe. Like Lu he is an outsider, rejected by his tribe, but seeking solice in the dead, and his ancestry. There are a few negative insular characters like the vulgar Rusty and Avis McDougal, whose prejudice, anger, and ugliness provide a backdrop for the deep hearts of Georgie and Lu. There is also Beaver, the complicated lonely ex-con mechanic, who occasionally talks to Georgie, letting out some of the secrets of White Point, and Jim’s past. Other characters are the dead, who exert an important influence on events. Jim’s wife Debbie, and the Fox family: Darkie, Sal, Bird, Bullet, and Georgie’s mother. Their deaths occur and recur in the present within the tortured inner world of those who survive them. Bird in particular is an evocative, and slightly mysterious character, with her “sorry” notes, and the way she takes notice of the world around her. However, the story really belongs to Lu and Georgie, and their sensual experience of the world within which they live.

The love story between Lu and Georgie is an unusual one, which occurs mainly in the absence of one another. In a seriously romantic gesture, but also a hopeless one, since he is without anywhere else to go, and has no reason to expect to be found, Lu heads towards Georgie’s dream island, while Georgie cleans Lu’s abandoned house, and begins nesting there in a similarly hopeless gesture. Both dream of the other, and explore the other in absentia, shaping their lives across the absence. One wonders whether such intensity would be possible in proximity, or whether the reality of life together could be so beautiful, however, that doesn’t matter. This is the story of platonic, ideal love, and one of the most moving bits of prose in the novel is when Lu recreates Georgie with his makeshift guitar: “You’re a resonating multiplication. You’re a crowd. You’re the stones at Georgie’s back and the olives shaken to the dirt at her feet. All the hot sweet night you’re the hairs on the back of her arm”.

There are some interesting stylistics which occur in the structure of the novel, and in Winton’s narrative. While the passages taking Georgie’s point of view are all in third person, Lu’s are in first. This give’s Lu’s chapters a particularly submerged, almost stream of consciousness feel, as his clipped sentences capture the immediacy of sensation: “Swims in a winy sea. All round him, in a mist, the piping breaths of the dead; they surge and swirl and fin beneath, roundabout, alongside him. It smells of soil, their breath, of soil and creekmud and melons. He hauls himself along with his face out, his limbs butted and glanced by slick bodies, one insistent at his hip knocking again and again in bunting enquiry as he goes on like a metronome, a beat without a melody”. Lu’s paragraphs on a Coronaton Island beach where he notices the crunch of shell, a blind man experiencing the world through other senses, taking in the sound of his feet, his breathing, the slop of his waterbag. Georgie’s chapters are written in full sentences. However the last chapter combines the two disparate writing styles, so that it is written in both third and first, a kind of linguistic union, which is very powerful, and extremely well handled. While Winton is breaking out of the standard creative writing mould of sticking to a single tense; a single narrative voice; a single style; he does it so subtly, and masterfully, that the reader who is being propelled forward on the rapid narrative could easily miss it. These poetic sentences are among the strongest in the book, full of nuance, and sensual experience: “She felt herself come unglued, felt the grip of his hands upon her arms. She was floating into that pale blue screen, into the soft world outside. Georgie Jutland drank his hot shout and let him sim her up into the rest of her life.” In between the broody internal language of the two main characters is enough local dialogue to keep the story colourful, and provide a sense of external reality: “Went to the university and what-all. Jerra! He yelled into the phone. Oy, you lazy, fat hippy bastard, get ya missus down the ambo shed and tell her to put her teeth in!”

There is also the music. Lu avoids it, and Georgie rediscovers it. Between Midnight Oil, Joe Cocker, Ry Cooder, of John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Elmore James, there is Lu’s steel guitar, and mandolin, and the licks of his brother Darkie. Music has the power to create and the power to destroy. It unravels Lu, threatens him with insanity as he remembers the family he has lost, and also saves him as he drones on his makeshift string, chanting through books, and his past. Dirt Music is a big sprawling novel about the ancient Australian land, about loss, life, death, and redemption, about change and stagnation, but above all about love, and its power to change people. Peopled with small, recognisable, and believable characters, and deep, intense themes, the prose is poetic, and powerful, and at times, the structure experimental, but it is possible to read this book solely for the plot. Fast, engaging, and stunningly beautiful, Dirt Music is the kind of book that can, and should be read, and re-read.