The Rattler and Other Stories
Do you know the screensaver that comes standard with windows called Mystify? It looks like a kaleidoscope of string art, with lines from one shape flowing in and out of the preceding and following patterns; it can be quite mesmerising to watch. I got the same sense reading AS Patric’s The Rattler & other stories, each story is standalone brilliant, but together they flow and mystify the reader.
There is a clear direction to Patric’s work; within a single paragraph you could find yourself part of the story, intricately woven into the narrative then suddenly a distant observer as the words cast a wide panoramic shot. I would say that AS Patric goes beyond author into auteur: he directs the shots and has complete control over the artistic vision.
‘Movement & Noise’ opens the collection. The opening scene is a classic Australian street, in the time before electronic games abducted children from under their facebooking parents’ noses. Kids are playing in the streets when the daughter of the milk bar owner is the fatality of a hit and run. But the victim is not the focus of the scene. Our attention is taken to the emergency vehicles flashing lights and the silence. Cut then to an interior scene: the protagonist, Sebastian, returns home on his bike, mother has gone away to get better and return, father has his home routines. Without going in to a full retelling of the story, what I find interesting is that in a story that features a death, Patric skips the obvious over description of the accident scene and draws an eerie tone out of the description of the home life of the young witness.
‘B O M B S’ is the second story of the collection. Patric takes an interesting approach, it doesn’t spoil the story to reveal that a bomb goes off sending a plane hurtling into the side of a mountain because the story doesn’t follow a chronological flow; rather the paragraphs are fragments, pieces of lives scattered amongst rubble and remains. A boy smuggles a lizard in a wooden pencil case onto the plane; a female passenger, sick of attention, hides behind a ‘curtain of hair’; a woman regrets her marriage; dreams and memories flash across the pages in seemingly random order. We hear the thoughts of each passenger before they realise they are about to meet their end. Again, Patric deftly avoids the obvious. This premise, in the hands of a lesser writer, could easily have fallen into a swamp of sentimental clichés, but Patric keeps us in the air for the duration of the flight.
Patric draws on his poetic skills in ‘Back when Jean-Michel Basquiat was My Best Friend’. Not the kind of poetry that would startle a metrophobe or mainstream reader, it’s a beautiful flow of metaphors that graffiti early 80s New York imagery into the reader’s mind. ‘When I wore a New York soul like a Bowery whore wears stolen mink’, ‘a city with a broken heart need not cost the life of a paint-spattered visionary. That New York should not forget seduction so soon after it is drowned in kisses.’ The narrator takes us into the backstreets and dark bars of Basquiat’s hometown for an intimate journey with a tortured artist.
What I love about Patric’s work is the balance he achieves. There is artistic expression, the way he explores techniques that can be jarring, such as the paragraph shuffle in ‘B O M B S’ or the psychedelic flow of ‘Back when Jean-Michel Basquiat was My Best Friend’, but this experimentation or jarringness (new word I just made up) does not come at the expense of readability; strangely, it enhances the reading. This is a testament to Patric’s skill as a writer that you can get buffeted through a story and come out massaged and refreshed.
The title story ‘The Rattler’ is pure and unapologetically Melbourne. It screams ‘Melbourne’ from start to end. I’m from Sydney and there is supposedly a rivalry (☺), but I felt at home in Melbourne while reading the inner workings of retired tram driver, wannabe writer Atticus O’Neill. Life happens to Atticus; he is not an overly active participant, but he does have a nice, massive, leather and chrome office chair for his underused study. Again Patric takes us deep into the mind of an ordinary life and shows us how surreal ordinary can be. And I love the hat tip to ‘B O M B S’ at the start of the section titled ‘A Green Light’, after Atticus’ wife, tired of seeing him sitting in his study all day, gets him a job as a taxi driver. Atticus drives out to the airport with ‘a small child … the first thing the boy had shown Atticus was a baby lizard he kept in a large wooden pencil case.’ ‘The Rattler’ was shortlisted for the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Awards in 2009 and went on to receive a High Commendation.
Alec Patric has served his apprenticeship. Each story in this collection has proven itself in the best literary journals in Australia: Wet Ink, Quadrant, Going Down Swinging, Etchings and others. Together they highlight a mammoth talent, and, without hyperbole, AS Patric’s name should be used often when referring to great Australian contemporary writers.
The Rattler & other stories is available from good bookstores and directly from the publisher, Spineless Wonders.