Tim Winton, Desert Mystic

FOR YEARS NOW, reviewers of Tim Winton’s books have been bemoaning how little known and read he is in North America. So let me add my voice to the chorus. The reasons for his relative obscurity in this neck of the woods are elusive. He is Australia’s most beloved and decorated writer, the author of twenty-nine books, some of which have been made into films, miniseries, and even an opera. He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

With the publication in 1991 of Cloudstreet, Winton was instantly recognized (by those Down Under, anyway) as a literary figure of the first rank. That novel, with its compelling mixture of realism and magical realism, its propulsive, colloquial diction, and its melodramatic, if unsentimental, storyline, established his identity as a chronicler of working-class western Australia—a physical and cultural hinterland where life has been hard for generations.

Winton’s last few books have been brought out in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, our preeminent literary publisher, so perhaps that is a sign that his fortunes here will be changing, given the near-canonical status of anything published by FSG.

His latest, The Shepherd’s Hut, is as good a place to start with Winton’s oeuvre as any. It’s the story of Jaxie Clackton, whose name, with its grating consonants, offers an objective correlative of the brutal childhood he’s experienced in the fictional small town of Monkton. Regularly beaten by his drunken lout of a father and mourning the mother he lost to cancer, fifteen year-old Jaxie is a volcano ready to erupt. Within the first few pages, the father he’s wished dead obliges him, ending up crushed beneath the car he was working on.

Coming upon his dead father, Jaxie concludes that the local copper, a confederate of his old man’s, will assume he kicked the jack out from under the car as an act of murderous revenge. So he quickly packs a rucksack and heads out into the western Australian desert, a beautifully desolate place of scrub brush and dry salt lakes.

It may seem like hyperbole, but for my money Winton does the man (or boy) against the harsh mistress of nature thing as well as anyone. He brings the likes of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy to mind. (Along these lines, The Shepherd’s Hut has a companion volume in his other recent novel, Breath, which, instead of the desert, features surfing and the dangerous beauty of the ocean.)

The opening paragraph of The Shepherd’s Hut is vintage Winton:

Tim Winton, Desert Mystic 2

Jaxie is not a particularly appealing character, but our repulsion from his foul-mouthed anger and late adolescent prejudices is offset by our desire to see him survive the most elemental challenges of hunger and thirst. In the end, of course, he is on a journey of self-discovery and the brutality that has made him hard has also forced him to develop an interior life.

Living on roasted kangaroo meat and scavenged water, Jaxie wanders the uninhabited wastes—until he unexpectedly comes upon the eponymous shepherd’s hut. Its lone resident is an old man, an Irishman named Fintan MacGillis, whom he eventually discovers is a Catholic priest—a shepherd without a flock—who has been exiled to the middle of nowhere for some unexplained reason.

Like the reader, Jaxie automatically assumes that reason is pedophilia, but the novel goes to great pains to indicate that that is not the case. MacGillis, it seems, had come upon some financial impropriety of epic proportions in the church and been sent to oblivion as part of a cover-up.

But MacGillis is no saintly whistleblower. He is a broken man, regretting the purely conventional Catholicism that formed him, questioning what he believes. Yet, like Jaxie, his immersion in the stark, unforgiving grandeur of the desert has changed him, offering him glimpses of glory—and of judgment. When Jaxie first arrives, rifle in hand, MacGillis imagines that the young man is “the end of days,” and in a sense he will be proven right.

Winton pulls off the juxtaposition of this odd couple with compelling force. The two come from completely different worlds and often speak past each other. “You might say I find myself a captive at large,” MacGillis says. “Have you read your man Dostoevski, then?” Naturally, Jaxie has not.

And yet each has something to offer the other, enough to overcome the myriad reasons they have to distrust each other. Jaxie finds it easy to dismiss religion and yet MacGillis continually surprises him. “He just rolled the dice, didn’t he?” Jaxie muses. “He wondered if I were a civilized man, like he said. Then he bet his life on it.”

Father MacGillis, in the end, makes his confession to a confused, angry fifteen year-old. When asked what it is that he believes, he replies that the question of faith “is the rusty hook I dangle from. In some pain, I’m not too proud to add. Perhaps I’ll never settle it, never be coherent, let alone sound. But I suspect that God is what you do, not what or who you believe in.”

When the isolation of these two is finally violated by the intrusion of others and the story careens toward its fraught climax, Father MacGillis is offered the chance to test his faith. What happens then transforms Jaxie. “I’m no kind of beast anymore,” he concludes. “So what does that make me? Someone you might not see coming, that’s what. Something that you can’t hardly imagine.”

But Tim Winton does imagine him—for our benefit. And while he gives us hints of a kinder, gentler Jaxie in the making, he never lets us forget that, like judgment itself, he is coming for us, the end of days.