'When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people.' So begins the opening, titular essay in Tim Winton's collection, The Boy Behind the Curtain.
That moment, lifted from one of the stories in Winton's The Turning, where it had in turn been lifted from the author's own childhood, is a singularly arresting entre to an essay that charts the author's complex relationship with firearms (part awe, part terror), by way of commenting on the place of guns in Australian society generally. In this collection of essays Winton adopts this mode frequently, weaving (sometimes deeply) personal narratives into stirring, thoughtful commentary on a broad range of social and political issues.
'Using the C-Word', for example, explores how Winton's blue-collar origins underpin a consciousness of class that has become unfashionable. He makes a compelling case for the ways in which class continues to shape Australian society, and the political processes and rhetoric (John Howard's Battlers; Julia Gillard's Working Families) that made class a dirty word.
'The Demon Shark' is a splendid three-part sandwich that begins with a review of Peter Matthiesen's shark-chasing memoir Blue Meridian and ends with a description of Winton's own frightening close encounter with a bronze whaler in the surf, via an atypically didactic retort to Australians' demonisation of these magnificent fish.
Winton's characteristically fine, vivid and humane writing services a jarringly diverse array of subjects. 'A Space Odyssey at Eight' recounts the baffling and eye-opening experience of seeing Stanley Kubrik and Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction masterpiece as a boy, and the long-lasting impact this had on him as a producer and consumer of stories.
In 'The Wait and the Flow' he provides the most sublime descriptions of the experience of surfing since ... well, since his own, 2008 novel, Breath. The essay illuminates the author's passionate, lifelong relationship with the sea, evident in so much of his fiction; it also eventually offers up a profound metaphor for the experience of writing itself.
The Boy Behind the Curtain provides numerous windows onto the author's life, without constituting his 'life story' per se. 'Havoc: A Life in Accidents' recounts a series of traumas experienced or witnessed in his youth, that shaped him. One of these led directly to the conversion of his parents to Christianity, which proves to be a pivotal moment.
That essay contains the roots of two others: one, 'In the Shadow of the Hospital', delineates Winton's strained relationship with those halls of horror and healing over many years; the other, 'Twice on Sundays', is a compelling account of Winton's religious upbringing following his parents' conversion, and his ongoing love-hate relationship with institutionalised faith.
"'The Battle for Ningaloo Reef' is a self-effacing, nuts-and-bolts account of his role as the celebrity face of a campaign to save that West Australian wonder."
Importantly this upbringing, with its emphasis on 'the next life', helped form his abiding love and concern for this world, and the people who inhabit it. It, as much as his rural upbringing and love of the sea, is a subtext to his work as both a humanist author and an environmental activist.
The latter is explicitly the subject of two essays. 'The Battle for Ningaloo Reef' is a self-effacing, nuts-and-bolts account of his role as the celebrity face of a campaign to save that West Australian wonder. 'Repatriation' is more elegiac but no less stirring, recounting a visit to Mt Gibson Sanctuary, 350km northeast of Perth, where the not-for-profit Australian Wildlife Conservatory is working to reclaim land devastated by mining and farming for the native species that once inhabited it.
Activism aside, frequently the essays that connect most vividly are those that have no agenda other than to share the writer's experiences. For this reviewer, 'Twice on Sundays' resonated with a relatively devout upbringing in a Protestant church that was threaded with veins of Pentecostalism and which esteemed social justice in a way that sometimes seemed at odds with its theological conservatism.
Yet 'Chasing Giants', in which Winton describes paddling on a board amid a pod of whales, is perhaps the high point of the collection. In it, the author's profound sense of humanity's relationship to the natural world and his prowess for exhilarating narrative description reach perfect synthesis.
Tim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.