If it’s true that the truth is stranger than fiction, there’s a good chance it’s a better read than fiction. I read two travel books over our recently departed summer – a summer that by and large did nothing remarkable until right at the end when it flipped out big time, going cyclone crazy in Queensland and bat-shit hot in Victoria. You can’t sleep at night. You throw off the sheets in disgust and curse whatever sadistic God left the oven on. Summer in Australia, unlike most countries, is not something you look forward to. You suffer through it, expecting the worst and usually getting it. The best result is mediocrity. The trepidation of summer is one of the saddest things about this country. Cooked, drugged, boiling over with bad behaviour, I reckon it would be a good time of the year to write an Australian road-trip book. Has there been a decent one? Did anyone read it? Recommendations, please.
Home of the road-trip book is of course Trumpland. The two books I read predated Trump, although one of them, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road shared the post-apocalyptic setting we’re apparently experiencing now. McCarthy is famous for not using punctuation correctly, and generally ignoring the rules of grammar. The Road is about a father and son’s depressing trudge through a desolate wasteland – the cause of which we never learn – freezing, starving and talking in short, pitiful sentences. “You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can.”
The shopping cart they push signifies their homelessness. They lie low. They lie cold. The modest comfort of a fire is dangerous, they don’t want to be seen. It’s a book about survival and the bond between father a son. You don’t have to work too hard to tug on parental heartstrings with this type of stuff, and as McCarthy marches his characters south the plot advances more through movement than storyline. It’s harrowing and unrelentingly bleak and quite frankly I was pleased to see the back cover of this Pulitzer Prize winner fake-news masterpiece. But then I picked up a road-book even more depressing, mostly because it was real: Paul Theroux’s Deep South.
Theroux is different to McCarthy in that he writes long, complex, grammatically correct sentences. He drives his car from his home in Cape Cod to the dirt-poor southern states. Black soil, black people. He avoids the cities and does laps of neglected, decaying towns, returning again and again through the four seasons of poverty. But it’s not just the black who are poor, dispossessed and defeated. He goes to gun shows and remarks: “This wasn’t about guns and gun totin’. It was about the self-esteem of men – white men mainly, the dominant ethnic group of the South, animated by a sense of grievance – who felt defeated and still persecuted, conspired against by hostile outside forces, making a symbolic last stand.” The South was shackled by history for both black and white, the current condition tightly woven into the backdrop of slavery and the civil war and everything else that had gone before it.
Theroux repeatedly chides the American government for sending billions in aid overseas while neglecting to fix the poverty in its own backyard. His strength is also his weakness: he generalises. But sometimes if you don’t generalise you’ll never get anything said. He says a lot.
The closest Australian version of the American South I’ve seen might be the town of Walgett, in north-western NSW. It’s as empty and forlorn as the fictional hellholes walked by the father and son in The Road. Boarded-up shop fronts, a stagnant swimming pool, a cop shop in the style of a Northern Ireland fortress, its people hidden somewhere behind closed doors, behind the romanticised veneer of rural Australia. Black and white together, living through another overcooked summer, living as politicians sometimes put it, “under pressure.” Someone should take a road trip. I’d read it.