In spring of 1972, Overland published a short story by a little-known writer from Bacchus Marsh. Two years later, this story opened Peter Carey’s debut collection, The Fat Man in History, which launched his career here and internationally; he has since become that rare Australian literary figure who is both immensely popular and critically respected.
In 1986, ‘Crabs’ was made into a film, Dead End Drive-In. Overland teamed up with the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival to screen the film and host a discussion about the story and, more broadly, to examine the ongoing phenomenon of Australian dystopia in print and on screen. To coincide with this event, we decided to republish the original story in its entirety.
Like most of Carey’s early short stories, it has lost none of its creative energy – there is a visceral thrill at work, an urgent drive for transformation. It was my privilege to chat with Peter Carey about the context in which he wrote ‘Crabs’, his early writing life, the excitement of short fiction, and of course, politics and cars.
JM: Overland published ‘Crabs’ just before Whitlam was elected – historically a time we remember as full of political hope for the future. But the story is suffused with a punk sentiment of ‘no future’ nihilism. Where did that energy come from? What was it about the Australia of that time that produced such a dark story?
PC: Yes, for three years Whitlam gave us all hope and pride, but it came after years of being a client state, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the murders of John and Robert Kennedy and the great Martin Luther King. We found ourselves collaborators in a violent, unjust war in Vietnam. We saw our friends drafted into the army. We lived with a hostile Australian Secret Service who saw Whitlam as a security risk and the CIA as their good friend. As the hippy movement would soon show, we were aware of the dangers of corporatism and the poisoning of the earth. What we made, of course, became known as Youth Culture. That is, we became a market niche in a consumerist society.
This is the world evoked in ‘Report on the Shadow Industry’, a story with its origins in a letter from my artist friend Jim Doolin, who had returned to live in Los Angeles. This is the time of Easy Rider, The Fire Next Time, Armies of the Night. Chicago, Newark, Memphis, Watts, Washington DC. Jim wrote about having a ringside seat for the end of the world.
I had lived in Europe for a couple of years in the late sixties during a time when Paris in particular and France generally was the site of massive demonstrations, general strikes, as well as the occupation of universities and factories. You could say there was optimism in this, but also a good deal of dread.
I returned home intending to write and produce a movie which I had called Twin Carbies, about a kid obsessed with hotting up his Holden, fitting a three-quarter grind camshaft, etc. etc. The journey took the protagonists into the territory of ‘Windmill in the West’ (an undisclosed American base). Twin Carbies never got beyond the notebook stage, but its roots were in the same soil as ‘Crabs’. I mean, the years of the Redex Trial, the car-mad Australia of the 1960s, and 3UZ’s Night Watch, a live radio program dedicated to car accidents in Melbourne at night: tow trucks, cops, death, injury and alcohol.
‘Crabs’ was my idea of realism. Young people went to the drive-in, as Crabs does, to have sex. To most of us it was the only private place available. We 18-year-olds went to car races at Sandown, got drunk on the smell of racing fuel, and imitated the gear-changing techniques of Norm Beechey, Bob Jane and so many names I have now forgotten. If the road from Geelong to Torquay was so dangerous in summer it is because we were all Norm Beechey, even if our Holdens were not yet hotted up.
Later, of course, ‘Crabs’ became a movie. By sheer coincidence, the screenplay was written by Peter Smalley who I had known since 1955 when we were both small-town boys at Geelong Grammar. Peter was one of my oldest friends so I decided to not see the movie; I am a picky sort of bloke and I would have surely have found some fault in it. It exists, instead, as a perfect tribute to our friendship.
JM: ‘Crabs’ is a kind of horror story, and most Australian horror – Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek – is set in the outback. Did you deliberately choose a suburban setting so as not to play into that tradition of the landscape as a site of trauma?
PC: I was always frightened of horror films. It wouldn’t have occurred me to set a story in the outback. Rather, I was obsessed with seeing the familiar urban Australia as strange and new. I would often liken this perspective to the experience of looking at the world upside down, between your legs: colours become strange and bright, relationships all new. You can see the same sort of ambition in Illywhacker, for instance.
JM: Why cars?
PC: The Star Drive-in was across the road from Monash University where I had failed so spectacularly in 1961. Those roads were my roads. I recognised them later in Mad Max.
And of course, I grew up with cars. My grandfather sold Fords. My father too. When grandfather sold a Ford, it was often my dad’s job to stay and teach the customer to drive. For this reason he was arrested at the age of twelve, for driving without a licence.
My dad indulged himself with an XK120 Jaguar, a Borgward, two wonderful Citroens, a Riley, a Daimler and, in 1959, a big finny Chevrolet. He could not afford to keep any of them long but he enjoyed them until he sold them. Meanwhile, of course, the cars were stared at everywhere we went. I was always much happier in the back seat of a Holden. And, of course, I grew up in a GM dealership, in a flat above the spare-parts department. I remember being home sick and hearing the life downstairs: my mother’s voice proving to the mechanics that she knew the parts numbers better than they did. The world smelled of oil and radiator hoses.
JM: Reading ‘Crabs’ now, the situation of a group of people detained indefinitely in a makeshift enclosure is chillingly reminiscent of the offshore detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Islands – it feels like a foreshadowing of the refugee camps. Where did that image come from?
PC: I was, at that time, interested in people trapped in life situations, trying to find their way out, to escape. Maybe this came from my parent’s life in PS Carey Motors, but I never thought of that until today. The writing in ‘Crabs’ was totally intuitive. I did not realise the ending until after I had contrived his escape. I found the dark suburbs, empty of life. I saw the light in the distance. I found the Star Drive-in just as he did. It was one of those moments which every writer remembers: the thrill when you find the shape, the meaning, the perfect form your dream has lead you to.
JM: That excitement is still there for us as readers. And so is a sense that you’re fascinated by whiteness and class – are these still central themes for you?
PC: Given the murderous history of our country, it is hard for any of us to avoid these things. So while my new novel A Long Way from Home is once again about the national car madness, particularly about [a] car race around the continent, its underlying concern is what it means to be a white Australian. This is a book I have waited all my life to write. I had to get old enough to discover how.
JM: I want to ask you more broadly about the political importance of fiction now, and your impression of the state of Australian writing. Your own work has been so significant in terms of expanding the Australian imagination, and I am wondering if the novel as national project still matters.
PC: We Australian writers are blessed. We have so many lies to question, so many secrets to delve into. There are so many people who have been invisible and overlooked. Yes, it’s a national project. We are collectively writing ourselves into existence. Now, if only our leaders would take a little extra time to read.
JM: ‘Crabs’ went on to open your debut collection The Fat Man in History, but at the time of its publication in Overland you hadn’t published a book-length work (though I believe you had written several). How did its publication come about in the journal, and what did your writing life look like at that time?
PC: I’d written three or four novels (depending on how I choose to count). I had devoted a year or two to each of them. It’s a long time to spend on a failed conception. So then I thought, I’ll write short stories. I imagined them as sheds, small structures I could take a risk with. If they fell down, they fell down. I’d write another one. Suddenly, I was on fire, writing one story one week, another the next. I worked in advertising full- and part-time. I was shortlisted for the Stanford Writing Scholarship.
The selection committee asked me: How do you see your writing developing? I answered that it would develop in the direction indicated by ‘Crabs’. The committee did not like the sound of that. Not at all, I was later told.
Please do not ask me if I got the Stanford Writing Scholarship.
Generally, I was pretty sick of being rejected by this time. So it was always other people – Barry Oakley, Laurie Clancy – who passed on my work to others. It was Philip Adams (who I met while interviewing for a job) who gave the ‘Crabs’ manuscript to Stephen Murray Smith. So here we are, full circle, back in Overland once more.
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