Saturday, January 1, 2011

Roger McDonald

January, 2011: At the airport, I bought a copy of When Colts Ran (2010) by Roger McDonald. I was on my way to New Zealand, to stay with Roger and his family - his daughter Anna is my bride-to-be, as soon as same-sex marriages are legal, assuming that marriage between friends is also legal, and - hell! - bigamy, too, so that I can marry all my friends. Friendship being the holy bond of society.

Colts is about friendship between men, specifically Australian men. This is a theme Roger has written about before; my favourite part of Mr Darwin's Shooter was the troubled, unfulfilled friendship, the intimacy and distance, between Covington and a character whose name I can't remember (not Charles Darwin). In fact, Colts began as a short story, which is now one of the later chapters, about a tentatively burgeoning friendship between two men that is cut short by an unforgivable betrayal. Maybe it's wrong to say that Colts is about friendship. I could say that it's about male identity, about being a man in Australia, about being an Australian man who hasn't been able to prove his manhood by fighting in WWI or II or by chopping down ironbarks or building a railway through wilderness, or all those manly feats that have already been greedily fulfilled by our ancestors. What manhood-proving feats are left?

A day or two later, I come back to my computer, thinking: what I liked best about Colts wasn't what Roger had to say about the various themes that cropped up; few of the questions that the characters ask - about life - end up being answered. Instead, it was a mood, or an emotion, of insatiable yearning that all the characters are gripped by at some point or another; a yearning for more of all the best parts of life - intimacy, fulfillment of one's potential, a sense of connection. The novel spans decades, so we get a chance to see the characters recognise the "limitations of their own being" (I read that phrase last night in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow). They yearn for the best parts, and slowly get used to the fact that most of 'living' is feeling disappointed, lonely, a failure: "Through every small opening in life, through the tiniest, most restricted nerve ends, through rips and tears and tatters, life pours."

One thing that's a bit daunting about Colts is the large cast of characters - each chapter focuses on a different character, often a person who was on the periphery of a previous chapter. This continues all the way to the end of the novel, so that the reader has to keep renewing their commitment vows to the novel, "Yes, I will take on a new character, one that I don't yet care two straws about; yes, I will leave behind the character of the last chapter, though I was just growing very fond of him." Kingsley Colts, whom we love the most, keeps getting a bit of a look in - this keeps us going. The themes, explored anew through each different man, are also strong enough to maintain a sense of continuum and advancement. But it was a bit like Moby Dick, when Melville would suddenly start discussing whale species - I'd have to take a breath, tell myself to let go, then catch hold all over again.

Here's a bit I liked, for its pantheism:

Colts turned off at Duck Creek, going up into the hill on a right-angled intersection taken on impulse. He felt an unsourceable excitement, a mixture of hope and despair, but where it came from was all around him. A desperation landscape made the heart feel glad concurrently with dragging him down. Hills and gullies were moods and emotions to him, part of his inexpressible being.

And another, for the two sides to 'unavailable'. A bit like the two sides to 'abandonment issues' (no, it doesn't mean we're afraid of being abandoned; it means we've gotten used to being abandoned, have grown to like the way it feels, and now have a dread fear of being trapped):

'Gil, are you there? The kids are frightened and they need you. Don't be unavailable when you're needed.'

An edge to that word, used by Erica when Dalrymple took jobs away from home, brooded, took long walks or went to the Five Alls until way after closing time and drove home blind as a bat. Unavailable, a word taken from a book about men and used to hobble him, he argued, whereas unavailable in Dalrymple's vocab meant something else - appetite defined as perfectly strange and perfectly beyond understanding. Unavailable to himself, which didn't mean don't try perfectly grasping.

Another line that came back to me was one that Veronica had read in "one of her novels" (slightly disparaging): "A woman goes where she is most appreciated."