The Last Pulse
In Anson Cameron’s rollicking environmental satire The Last Pulse, South Australian farmer Merv Rossiter has lost his wife to suicide and his vineyard to a banker, thanks to a man-made drought. Cotton farmers way upstream in Queensland have dammed and damned the river system and stopped the water that should flow all the way to the Great Australian Bight.
Merv wants his state’s water back, so with his eight-year-old daughter Em, he steals a party barge and drives it on the back of his truck to Queensland to blow up the dam and repatriate South Australia’s missing gigalitres.
When his explosive plan is put into action at the dam’s official opening, the Queensland environment minister, Bridget Wray, who chose the wrong moment to go to the “little girls’ room”, is caught up in the flood, only to be rescued from her floating Portaloo and held hostage by Merv and Em as they careen their way south on their escape barge.
Minister Wray is an example of all that’s wrong with the world. Since moving to Brisbane and losing weight, her country electorate feels “snubbed by a daughter of the district whose heart is no longer a ruby in a vault of adipose tissue”, yet she’s unmoved by South Australia’s plight. “Maybe they have cities and schools and they love each other like we do,” she tells Merv. “But I’m not licensed to care. Any ounce of compassion or litre of water I gift to a foreign devil like you is at a cost to my people, people who empowered me to care.”
On their shipboard travels, they escape vigilante locals who’d like to execute the minister, pass dying towns that have “a knack for making the third world feel good about itself”, and witness the devastation of decades of the dry on habitats and plains.
They also pick up a washed-away Yangarna boy, Barwon, who fancies himself a river man responsible for singing the great flood into being, the way his ancestors did. “You all think you know everythin’,” Barwon says to Merv, about the source of the flood, “but you fellas don’t know a bullshit rumour from a crap festival in horseshit town.” He could well be talking more broadly about white stewardship of this country as compared with that of the traditional owners.
It’s all very witty, with one clever set-piece and terrific cameo after another. The downfall of novels such as this can be a focus on the voice and the novelty of the set-up at the expense of the plot, but here there’s more behind Merv’s quixotic actions than granting the dying circulatory system of inland Australia one last pulse.
Late in the piece we meet Professor Clancy Sawyers, a Flannery-type climatologist sacked by his university for his bizarre theory of long-range weather prediction. Sawyers, burdened by “indoor skin and a spine curved from perusing desktop knowledge”, as well as private school fees for the children of his non-virginal mail-order bride, is crucial to Merv’s grand plan.
This kind of allegorical story requires goodies and baddies, and in The Last Pulse farmers such as Merv are both heroes and victims at the pointy end of our changing climate. “The world we know is ending,” Merv says, “and another one coming and we can’t see what it looks like any more than a blackfella could have imagined a printing press or a brewery.”
A black hat is federal Environment Minister Dafydd Miles, a Welsh-Australian and “a flagrantly camp man, no taller than a boy of ten, theatrically effete in his mannerisms and dressed as elegantly as a Milanese magistrate”, who outsmarts farmers “so preoccupied with not being homophobic, racist and sizist when speaking to him that they become constrained, passive and as tongue-tied as they would talking to some delegate from an intergalactic civilisation just stepped from a flying saucer.”
Politicians in general don’t fare well, but the true villains of the piece are Queenslanders.
Queenslanders live where the rain falls. If this good fortune has made them “defensive, insular and suspicious of the rest of Australia, then that suspicion is a small price to pay for the smorgasbord of their rapine at which they have become porky-faced and at which they have clad their hearts in fat”. Their dignitaries dress “in yesteryear’s suits and Akubra hats and frocks tailored for dugongs, which the middle-aged women of Queensland resemble in their morphology”. As employees, their labour exchange rate is “as low as a drug-fucked gibbon”.
Southern farmers know that “Queensland, like some obese Dracula, was allowed to monopolise the artery that kept her sisters alive ... Queensland is a black-hearted pig that must be bombed backward into barefoot beggary. Which is not so very far, it being a nest of hillbillies and drudges.”
And for the geographical/elected representative quinella, Queensland politicians are “a cast of dullards and ghouls”.
I tried to muster up some indignation on behalf of our valued northern readers but I was having too much fun.
A novel about the Murray-Darling Basin is as attractive as a contagious rash, and Cameron’s previous novel, Stealing Picasso, left me cold, but this is a different beast altogether. It’s a delight, and it’s more effective in making its point than wider, po-faced narratives. “This is how the world dies, piece by piece,” says Merv, and Cameron’s focus on one particular river system killed off by vested interests, greed and stupidity is a hugely entertaining way to spread the message.
The Last Pulse is the ideal Christmas gift for all those hard-to-buy-for anti-federalists in the family. Anson Cameron, though, might be well advised to take his holidays in Tasmania this year. LS
Vintage, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "Anson Cameron, The Last Pulse". Subscribe here.