Best of 2012: My house is a very bleak house

Last weekend’s newspapers, both local and international, were full of their ‘best of’ reading recommendations for 2012. It seems wherever we were we read pretty much the same books, and we’ll read them again next year just to show how much we enjoyed them. I enjoyed them too, well some of them, with one of my favourite books this year being Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (faber & faber, 2012) getting plenty of mentions. Another, not mentioned on any of the lists I read, was Clair Vaye Watkins short story debut, Battleborn (Granta, 2012). But for most of the year I’ve been searching out earlier writers and books I’d never read – some writers I’d never heard of and was fortunate to discover. Although they are all North American, I found in them characters and stories that connected with me in a ways that I had rarely experienced in Australian writing.

My book of the year was Chester Hines All Shot Up, (first published in English in 1960 – a French edition had been released in 1959 – and re-released by Penguin as a ‘modern classic’ in 2011). It is a genuine classic, and a wild ride through the streets of Harlem with a pair of misfits, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. My Fitzroy of the 1960s may not have been Harlem, but the novel is the closest thing I’ve seen and heard to the clubs, pubs and espresso bars of Gertrude and Brunswick Streets of the time; and once described by the Indigenous matriarch, Auntie Eleanor Harding, as ‘Dodge City on a bad night – and I loved it.’

(By the way, there was always a rule in the inner city: never get tattooed below the elbow or on the neck, particularly if your chosen career was armed robbery. So, at least we know that our money’s safe with the urbane types of today’s Brunswick Street.)

A top shelf anthology was released this year, Grit Lit – A Rough South Reader (The University of South Carolina Press), and included writers such as Daniel Woodrell, Dorothy Allison and, another favourite of mine, Ron Rash. While the co-editors, Ben Carpenter and Tom Franklin, confess that many of the characters of ‘Rough South’ (or new Gothic) writing do ‘weed and pills and sometimes meth … they’re usually white, usually rednecks, broke, divorced and violent,’ it’s not all bad news. Or if it is, the badness of this anthology is wonderfully written, thought provoking, and occasionally frightening.

Grit Lit introduces a cast of misfits (thank you, Miss O’Connor), outsiders and a few good old boys. For me the finds of the anthology were two writers I’d never read before. The first was Dorothy Allison. The two pieces by her in the collection, ‘Deciding to Live’ and ‘River of Names’ led me to her 1992 novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (Penguin), which narrates the life of a girl, Bone, growing up in 1950s Carolina. The girl is brave, as is the writing. And it is great. Bone confronts struggle and violence on a daily basis, and lest we think that as readers, we can comfortably feel sorry for her, she, and the writing both, confront us as well.

My second discovery in Grit Lit was Breece D’J Pancake. His life’s work (he died young, in 1979) is contained in the story collection The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. (The 2002 edition, put out by Back Bay Books contains two admiring essays, one by the novelist and short story writer, Andre Dubus III.) Each of the stories in the collection is a gem, and highlight what should be the obvious, but is often missed by reviewers. The stories of writers including Pancake are not simply about lives reduced to sadness or misery. They are stories of resilience in the truest sense. They are also stories about madness in the world. They show us how life can get fucked up for any one of us, and in a hurry. They explore the desperate, unconventional, and poignant ways that people deal with shit.

To round off my back catalogue I’d like to mention three novels. For those who hold Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son (Picador, 1992) to their canonical hearts, get hold of his 1983 novel, Angels. (A Harper Perennial edition was published in 2002 and is available). Carson McCullers short story collection, The Ballad of the Sad Café, (first published in 1951, with a Mariner Books release in 2005) illustrates that she was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. And for anyone who enjoyed the 1971 feature film, The Last Picture Show, please return to the 1966 Larry McMurtry novel of the same name. While the movie was very good, the book is even better.

Sometimes my reading and own writing habits do not match. I have read everything put out by the Norwegian author, Per Petterson. The subject matter and writing could not be more different. (And, not that it needs to be commented on, his work is also around twelve billion times better than mine.) But as far as the writers and works listed above are concerned, the subject matter and style interests and influences me greatly. I enjoy their bleakness as much as I do their courage and ability for storytelling.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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  1. Really looking forward to ‘All Shot Up’ after this review. I was going to ask if it was originally published in French, but visited his wikipedia page instead – what a life! Thanks for the introduction.

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