There was a time in my early twenties when I crossed the Nullabor plain about ten, maybe eleven, times. Once I travelled in a beautiful big 1970s ford, five of us crushed in and driving madly against a schedule. Other times I crammed in mini-buses filled with activists, off to conferences ‘over East’. There were moments of beauty out in the desert – spectral fog lit up by the rising sun, the massive thunderstorm that crashed and roiled overhead – and of horror, such as when the road shivered with a plague of a million mice. There were also long hours of terrible boredom, with the kilometres stretched ahead.
And of course, there were the trucks: massive road-trains that rose up like monstrous beasts, storming out of the night. As they passed, the car would lurch, the outside air would suck powerfully against the windows in a sudden rush. At the truck stops they would sit quietly in the night, as though sleeping. Their huge tyres red with the desert dust, their once gleaming bodies dirty from the travel. Everything about them seemed larger than life: the giant wheels, the massive lights packed onto their grills, their dark windows like vast eyes. They were terrifying and magnificent.
Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong is filled with love of trucks, though his are sentient, with thoughts and plans of their own. Macrae’s trucks often run alone, or they gather in great ‘brumby packs’ like wild horses. They inhabit a post-apocalyptic Australia, together with the orphan protagonist, Jon Ra.
Ra is adopted by the violent Smoov, a ‘showman’ who travels the broken land, through the remnants of settlements, most of which have fallen into a kind of low-level barbarism. Showmen perform shows that are part performance, part religious experience, praying to the ‘wotcher’ in the skies that transmits old images of life before the catastrophe.
Ra falls rapidly in love with Smoov’s teenage daughter Isa, and she provides him with what little kindness and solidarity he has. When Isa is kidnapped by the ‘Brumby King’, a particularly powerful leader of a pack of ‘brumbies’, Ra sets off to find her. On his journey, he hitches a ride with the ‘indi’ truck Simmerman, who has reasons of his own to face the Brumby King. The two develop a symbiotic relationship – as all pairs of trucks and riders do – in which their minds and bodies merge.
On his journey, Ra’s haunted by the mysterious figure of ‘old crow’, dressed in old tyres, always turning up at points of crisis, always seeming to sneer at Jon Ra’s troubles – he is part tormentor, part judge.
As should be clear, Macrae is here playing with a number of classic science fiction tropes, most centrally the relationship of humans to machines, both in the form of trucks and also the strange religion of Smoov’s, which hopes the ‘wotcher’ will return technology to humanity and save it from its apocalyptic fall. Technology, Macrae tells us with true modernist irony, is both wonderful and terrible: a trap and a source of liberation. By the time Ra finishes his coming-of-age journey, he has come to see that he must stand on his own feet, separate from both humans and technology.
Australia is, of course, the perfect post-apocalyptic setting, partly because of its vast and exotic extremities, its fires and floods, its barren deserts and unforgiving bush, and partly because it has already experienced a kind of apocalypse in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. If Trucksong recalls something, it is the world of the Mad Max films; Macrae’s world, however, is significantly more interesting.
The most singular thing about the book is Jon Ra’s voice. Written in a kind of phonetic transliteration of a lower-class Australian dialect, with all its strange turns and playful eccentricities, we can practically hear Jon Ra telling the story to us. In this it follows in the footsteps of Russel Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker and perhaps novels like a Clockwork Orange, though Macrae’s is considerably less demanding of the reader. Indeed, this voice is also one of the delights of the book, and Ra’s voice echoes in the reader’s mind long after Trucksong is finished.
Macrae’s Trucksong is a book to savour, a startlingly original fusion of science fiction elements. Jon Ra’s coming-of-age story sits at its centre, and we not only hear his voice but we feel his longing and his pain. Still, the book’s most memorable characters will always be the trucks, rushing through the desert and the bush, their engines roaring, the gears shifting and cranking, the tyres squealing – creatures of terrifying magnificence.
The launch of Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong is happening this evening at 6pm, 413 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. For more details: www.trucksong.com.au