The story is rooted in both the Melbourne and Sydney street life, and rich with the detail of finding food, places to sleep, and coping with law and ignorance while trying to remain artistically productive. It is an honest, and straightforward look at both homelessness and mental illness, presented with some humour and a reasonable degree of upbeat pathos.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
King Street Blues
By Denis Fitzpatrick
ISBN 0-9758258-3-6, 2006, $12.95
In 1994, Denis Fitzpatrick made a philosophical decision to become homeless. He spent five years living in squats, in shelters, and at times, even begging for a meal. Fitzpatrick wasn’t only homeless during this period, but he was also a working writer, pulling his stories together on a secondhand typewriter, photocopying them in the public library and hand selling them on the street for $1.00 each. He was also struggling with mental illness and hearing voices, some of which encouraged him to a suicide attempt. He voluntarily checked himself in and out of the Rozelle Psychiatric hospital. He has quite a story to tell. Following in the footsteps of confessional work along similar lines to Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table Fitzpatrick unflinchingly traces the trajectory of his pain and fear, and surprisingly, finds much to commend this period, both in terms of its impact on his consciousness, and in the simple albeit tenuous pleasures of street life. The book is unsentimental and fast paced. At sixty three pages including the appendix it is possible to read it in a single sitting, and there is much to draw a reader’s attention. The writing is evocative, and insightful:
My writing was my constant companion at this time and although it was very experimental and largely absurdist, it also provided a vent for the voices who were now becoming nastier. They had already by this time claimed to have discovered God (i.e. me). This I denied at first but it explained why the voices spent their time in revealing secret philosophy to me alone. Now though, they were expecting their God to solve all of the world’s problems, getting snarky when I pointed out that I couldn’t even look after myself.” (20)
However, one has the distinct feeling that Fitzpatrick is holding back. King Street Blues just grazes the surface of Fitzpatrick’s recollections, and while he is happy to reveal the outer details of his life, and even to reveal some of the words which the voices say to him, we rarely get the sense that we are experiencing Fitzpatrick’s inner world. Because the story is an important one, and the terrain one which is potentially full of interest, the reader needs to get closer, under the narrator’s skin. While the lack of self-pity and the upbeat tone of the work is a positive thing, there nonetheless needs to be more of a drop—more drama as the author hits the lows. The voices are a constant throughout the work: “…to this day I still possess them, constantly entertaining me with synchonicity” (27), but the author doesn’t seem to struggle against them. They are alternatively a positive and malevolent force, but we rarely feel the author’s struggles to free himself. For example, there is a section towards the end of the book, where the author is in so much emotional turmoil that he tries:
to commit suicide with my imagination. When that didn’t work I pulled out all bar three of my dreadlocks which somehow calmed me down enough (maybe It was the shock of the pain) to wait for breakfast peacefully.
How I longed for the beautiful light of dawn.(47)
It is obvious from the actions involved that this must have been a low point, especially since a nearly fatal suicide attempt follows, but we learn little of the author’s internal torments.
It seems as though Fitzpatrick took some care to keep the book light, but this just isn’t a light subject. As the honest and painful story of a young writer struggling to deal with his mental demons while continuing to produce art, and it requires more courage, and a lot more inner detail, to reveal the depth of that pain. The quality of the story and the writer’s ability merits more than a cursory and lighthearted glance at this period. The reader needs more detail and more introspection to properly empathise, and to begin to understand both the mental and physical challenges that Fitzpatrick suffered. There is much misunderstanding and even ignorance of the life of street people, and this could help address these while still producing a fully realized story. As is, it stops short of its potential.
There are also a number of fillers which could safely be removed, for example, the author’s “Hypothetically Calibrated I” which is presented as Appendix A. This is only relevant to the story in that it calls to mind the schizophrenia involved in A Beautiful Mind. There are also a number of colloquialisms, which, while presenting an authentic voice, do much to distract the reader, including the ever present use of “Anyway” as a sentence (even as a paragraph), and a few sentences which are totally incomprehensible, such as: “This is because in order to have or do anything, you must have the whole of that object, or mission, for it to be truly effective.” (20) or “…when they start mingling with passers by’s voices then Reality reveals the necessary side. It needs to be operated on…It’s basically synchronicity and this earth is revealing an illness.” (37) Because the story is one which involves a struggle with sanity, the clarity of the text is critical. The reader needs to fully understand and empathise with the narrator, and if the “voices” get an equal say in the narration, then we don’t feel the difficult movement from illness to sanity, which is a key part of the story that the author has to tell.
That said, King Street Blues as it stands, is still an interesting book worth a read. The story is rooted in both the Melbourne and Sydney street life, and rich with the detail of finding food, places to sleep, and coping with law and ignorance while trying to remain artistically productive. It is an honest, and straightforward look at both homelessness and mental illness, presented with some humour and a reasonable degree of upbeat pathos. With a bit more work, some culling, and more delving, this could be a serious and important book.