Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. and for fucksake don’t get in my way.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 12: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin, 1974)

Books remaining: 14. Weeks left to read them: 23 (I blame Christmas).

Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall.

Stack of Ursula Le Guin books

Got to keep it real if these are allowed to stay.

I have loved Le Guin since I read her A Wizard of Earthsea, which got made into typically beautiful Studio Ghibli film Tales of Earthsea

I know I have been doing a lot of sci-fi in this project, but I have numerous Le Guin books, so I thought I had better get stuck into them to see if I still wanted her taking up valuable shelf real estate.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed tells of two planets, Urras and its moon Anarres, first populated when a group of anarchists decided they wanted a socialist society without government, law, property or profit. On Anarres, they dreamed, humans would contribute voluntarily to achieve common goals for the good of all, and they voluntarily broke away from Urras.

There is now little contact between the two – eight spaceships a year exchange limited goods, news and publications – until Shevek, Anarres’ most brilliant physicist and a man renowned on both planets, accepts an invitation to be the first Anarresti to visit Urras. There, he will work among his peers and teach for a period at an Urrasti university.

Shevek, though he loves Anarres and his family, is frustrated by not having other brilliant physicists to talk to (I know just how he feels, obviously) and decides to make the journey, both in a desire to develop a scientific theorem that could revolutionise both worlds, and in a belief he can unite the two societies and bury their mutual distrust.

Shevek, however, soon realises that just as he never quite fit in on Anarres, neither does he fit among Urrasti, and his difference begins to weigh heavily upon him.

He had worked hard on his speech, a plea for free communication and mutual recognition between the New World and the Old. It was received with a ten-minute standing ovation. The respectable weeklies commented on it with approval, calling it ‘a disinterested moral gesture of human brotherhood by a distinguished scientist’; but they did not quote from it, nor did the popular papers. In fact, despite the ovation, Shevek had the curious feeling that nobody had heard it.

Shevek slowly begins to see beneath Urras’ beautiful surface and realises he is not an honoured guest, but a prisoner ill-equipped to deal with an all-powerful government that has him entirely at its mercy. His mission is not only impossible but dangerous, and he has made a terrible mistake in coming to Urras.

The loneliness, the certainty of isolation, that he had felt in his first hour aboard the Mindful, rose up in him and asserted itself as his true condition, ignored, suppressed, but absolute.
He was alone, here, because he came from a self-exiled society. He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. The Settlers had taken one step away. He had taken two. He stood by himself, because he had taken the metaphysical risk.
And he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong.

Reading this book was like slipping into a warmed pool of water. There was no discomfort, no reluctance, no resistance, just delicious ease and forward motion. And yet it is not bland, but suffused with droll humour in its depiction of people, worlds apart, but trying to understand each other.

“The one thing everybody knows … is that you don’t drink alcohol. Is it true, by the way?”
“Some people distil alcohol from fermented holum root, for drinking – they say it gives the unconscious free play, like brain-wave training. Most people prefer that, it’s very easy and doesn’t cause a disease. Is that common here?”
“Drinking is. I don’t know about this disease. What’s it called?”
“Alcoholism, I think.”

Scorn and anger running through many of the scenes on Urras, where woman serve purely as decorations, is also illuminated with humour.

184The prose is soaked in political and philosophical ideas, but its simplicity and humanity mean it does not lecture. It is no morality tale, but a story of infinite subtlety and a piercing contemplation of loneliness.

The world had fallen out from under him … he had always feared this would happen, more than he had ever feared death. To die is to lose one’s self and join the rest. He had kept himself, and lost the rest.

I was thoroughly overstimulated, as you can see from my rabid note-taking, and overcome by relief at reading a truly compulsive book again.

photo 2
Keep or kill? Look, I’m keeping it, but I got rid of this pile of L books and surrounds to assuage my guilt (kept all the Le Guin ones though).

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Note: This is one of several excellent titles I have read from Gollancz’s Sci-Fi Masterworks series, for example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

For more titles in this series, click here and particularly, if you have not read I am Legend, banish the movie from your mind and fill the space you made with the original, readable and infinitely more meaningful novel.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.