In Praise of Andrew McGahan

Andrew McGahan’s first book, the disturbingly comic Praise, defined him as a Queensland writer, and that stuck. Even though he has written books set in Sydney and Canberra, even though he has lived in Melbourne for decades, the sultry indolence of Brisbane in that Vogel-Award winner back in 1992 perfectly matched the tone and delivery of McGahan’s novel. Gordon, the writer’s alter-ego, gave us an updated view of the Brisbane so vividly evoked in David Malouf’s Johnno, and, like that magnificent book, there was a heart-wrenching pathos to the story.

McGahan’s own story now is close to its end, as he succumbs to pancreatic cancer, aged just 52. A report in the Brisbane Courier-Mail last week suggests there may be one final book, if time permits, to add to the ten completed. He has never been a swift writer: there were six years between Praise and 1988, which was a prequel once again using elements of his own life story to create an adventure for Gordon in a Northern Territory lighthouse.

Last Drinks came next, a superbly confident and shrewd crime fiction set all-too-realistically in seedy, sordid Brisbane. It should be compulsory reading for all Australians, not just Queenslanders – except that would suggest it’s serious and requires discipline when, in fact, it’s a page-turner. That one only took him two years; once he saw the potential in that tawdry, outrageously corrupt era, and once he had his central character (a jaded journalist who’d rather not be a hero), he must have relished creating his story.

It may be a critical nervousness, a lack of confidence in our own sense of literary worth, that leans Australians towards praising the ponderous ahead of the lithe.

Even when McGahan’s books are really ambitious, like his Miles Franklin winner White Earth (2004) and the fantastical Wonders of a Godless World (2009), there is a fluency to the writing. I suspect that is part of the reason he has not garnered as weighty a reputation as some other Australian writers. It may be a critical nervousness, a lack of confidence in our own sense of literary worth, that leans us towards praising the ponderous ahead of the lithe.

He has also been ruthlessly political, fuelled by anger at injustice, but again, he is less well known for this than Tim Winton, say, or Richard Flanagan. His most scathing political satire, Underground, is quick-witted, inventive and wickedly funny – a terrorist plot to blow up the Gabba, for heaven’s sake! Outrageous! It hit the mark with such precision it was called out as the work of an “unhinged propagandist” by an unhinged propagandist. Ah, those were the days.

McGahan once said he wanted to give every genre a go, which is why we got the (anti)bildungsroman Praise, the road-trip-cum-marooned novel 1988, crime story Last Drinks, Gothic tragedy White Earth, political satire Underground, then that Eco-esque fantasy, Wonders of a Godless World. When he turned to fantasy for younger readers, he plotted a series (but of course) and created four seafaring novels about the Ship Kings. The final one was The Ocean of the Dead.

He must have felt he was writing himself out of his Queensland roots with White Earth, which not only marks out the territory around Dalby, west of Brisbane, where McGahan grew up, but also features a dilapidated grand house based on a real property with a colourful colonial history. Dalby is inland, so when McGahan first creates an island in his mind (in Wonders of a Godless World) then oceans for his stories, in his Ship Kings series, it was as though he was setting sail and leaving that landscape behind.

How Praise, the story of Gordon, with his asthma, his lethargy, his dithering, his resignation to failure, could still seem – despite the grunge and pathos – sweet and endearing is very much the power of his writing.

Obsessions can sometimes bog writers down, and it’s clear McGahan has the obsessive mind of a dedicated writer. He never bogs down, however, because that serious and obsessive side is always tempered by an ability to see the absurd, a need to laugh when things are dire, and that bountiful imagination.

How Praise, the story of Gordon, with his asthma, his lethargy, his dithering, his resignation to failure, could still seem – despite the grunge and pathos – sweet and endearing is very much the power of his writing.

A quality that infuses all very good novels is, perhaps, prescience. Never one to pontificate, shy and reticent in public, McGahan has been, indeed, prescient. Now there is currency in the idea that we must tend the land’s soul, in the critical importance for humanity to insert ourselves into the natural world rather than continuing to subdue and dominate it, and in listening carefully and with respect. McGahan had it there in his 2004 White Earth, Jim telling his nephew that, to “own” a piece of land, you have to know where it fits in history. “Every stretch of earth has its own story,” he tells the boy. You have to listen, and understand how it connects with other stories. Stories that involve the whole country in the end.”

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