“I feel like I get fucked over every day…” That, as a kōan, encapsulates Dennis McIntosh’s seven years on the construction crew of Melbourne’s Western Trunk sewer project.
A driven sort of bloke by his own telling, McIntosh worked in the tunnel out of grim necessity. As The Tunnel begins – taking up just after his coming-of-age stint as a sheep shearer, which he chronicled in his first book, Beaten by a Blow – though he’s on the wagon, his marriage is shaky, and he’s gone through four jobs in as many months.
He’s never been underground before and his jumpy, bewildered first impressions convey the unearthliness of it. Soon, though, he (but never the reader, quite) grasps the workings and politics of the tunnel. It’s just another workplace, full of “cunts” and “wogs” and one “fucken” thing after another.
But the tunnel is more than a hole in the ground; it’s a state of mind. “I couldn’t see a way out.” Aside from the work and the company, he’s rubbed raw by a sense of personal injustice: “I wanted a break, a reward. I deserved it. I’d earned it … I was down here waiting to be discovered, but no one was coming, not even God. No one even knew I was here.”
McIntosh, whose education ended at year 9, feels that he is capable of more. He applies for other, better jobs but gets knocked back every time. One thing about a tunnel, though: it’s heading somewhere.
What keeps him going is the task of helping his daughter overcome a brain injury suffered in infancy. A regimen of exercise and training leads her towards recovery, inspiring him to train towards his own goals. He coaches a junior swimming team to success, getting a thrill of vindication when he passes the coaching exam. “Now I believed there was nothing I couldn’t do if I was given a chance to learn it.”
McIntosh thanks Penguin for publishing his work “at a time when working-class stories have become invisible in our literature”. Working-class stories by working-class writers, perhaps. Alex Miller, Tony Birch and the rest – they tend to be university-educated (if not tenured) by the time their stories of working life appear in print. McIntosh himself now has a PhD.
The Tunnel is an unsettling – and defiantly humourless – read. Partly that’s because it gives the soft-handed reader a taste of how the other half lives. Mainly, though, it’s due to the fistful of entitlement that McIntosh just can’t let go of. FL
Penguin, 112pp, $9.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Dennis McIntosh, The Tunnel". Subscribe here.