The Shepherd’s Hut
The Shepherd’s Hut is the outrageous story of a headlong bolt through the remotest outback by a charismatic gun-toting teenager determined to reunite with his girlfriend half a continent away. It’s Winton’s 29th book and the closest thing he has written to a full-dress action-adventure thriller.
The goldfields of Western Australia are where this raw cross-country romp unfolds, that droughty, sun-blasted strip of scrub and salt pans squeezed between the red desert of the interior and the stubble paddocks of the wheat belt. It’s the perfect backdrop for a gritty tale of survival and almost biblical self-revelation.
Indeed, the goldfields are more than mere backdrop. The Shepherd’s Hut is an inspired and profoundly sympathetic landscape evocation. It’s as if the story and the country become one in the voice of a young narrator who experiences the world “low down and close up”.
This is Jaxie Clackton, a 15-year-old skinhead from a fictional town called Monkton, halfway up the Great Northern Highway. Jaxie is a lot like the bush in those parts. He’s hard and unforgiving and a little bit misunderstood. Yes, he’s a young brawler and has done plenty of mean and stupid things while killing time in a redneck backwater, but – like the Mulga shrublands – there’s more life in him than people know.
When his nasty prick of a dad unexpectedly carks it, Jaxie senses his moment. He throws on his camos, grabs a rifle, some cans of food, a bottle of water and not much else, and heads bush. His only thought is to make for the town of Mount Magnet, about 300 clicks north, where his lover is currently living as a virtual prisoner in a pub owned by her aunt.
That’s a lot of rough country to cover on foot but, once he gets clear of the dust and paddocks, the land seems to welcome the feisty interloper:
When the sun came up I saw there was a billion spiderwebs all shining along the ground and across the dead timber. Like the silver lining people talk about.
Jaxie is a remarkable figure. His speech is excessively colourful and his mind is fertile in imagery and comparison. Here’s how he describes a case of the runs after drinking some bad water from an old tank:
Coulda been anything floating in there, some dozy possum maybe or a crow thought it was a swan. Whatever it was it went through me like a rifle rag. Come dawn me date was so hot you coulda lit a spark plug off of it.
This is so much more than eavesdropping or mimicry. Jaxie’s unrestrainedly inventive demotic has the virtue of seeming at once comically exaggerated and utterly authentic. If real teenagers in Dalwallinu or Moora don’t actually talk like this, well, so much the worse for them.
Jaxie has an instinct for the natural world, or at least for this corner of it. He pays attention to the land and can read its topography. He knows the names of the trees and the habits of the beasts. He’s a steady shot and he can field dress a wallaroo with a butterknife.
And as he moves deeper into the bush, living on roo meat and canned pineapple, his thoughts, too, go deeper. He starts musing on spiritual questions. He thinks about love and family and responsibility, and about miracles and prayer and the problem of evil. There is a special tranquillity in the goldfields that encourages him to think about his life as if for the first time.
By chance or providence, Jaxie eventually stumbles upon Father Fintan MacGillis, an Irish priest living in a tin shack in the middle of nowhere. Fintan was caught with his fingers in the church purse and, as punishment, was dispatched by his bishop to go preach in the wilderness. Soon the young seeker from Monkton with the shaved head is sharing digs with an accidental eremite on the edge of a vast salt pan. And that’s when the bad guys show up.
But this tale is twisted in all sorts of comic and sinister ways. Did I mention that Jaxie’s girlfriend is his cousin? Or that his dipshit dad, the local butcher, stocks his failing shop with brumby steaks? Here’s the scene where Jaxie discovers the old man crushed under the bull bar of his own ute:
Fuck me, the bare hubs were down hard on the concrete. And the ute was casting a shadow that no light was ever gunna make. A shadow doesn’t search for a drain like that. Shadows don’t have blowflies drowning in them. But I spose for two seconds I let meself think it was just oil. Like he’d dropped the bung out of the sump, too pissed to remember to slide a drain pan under it. From the corner of me good eye I could see the half empty bottle on the bench. No bubbles left in the Coke. Something sucking at the open neck, a wasp maybe.
What a fantastically Gothic set piece. The shadow. The drain. The drowning flies. The wasp. Tim Winton really is one of Australian literature’s great tenebrists, a master of forced intensities of light and shadow and a connoisseur of images that linger in the mind like obscure portents.
Back in 2008, Winton wrote an article about the semi-arid goldfields and the reclaimed agricultural land around Mount Gibson for The Monthly. He noted how alive the land now feels after years of neglect, full with signs and intimations of restored power. And he noted also a shift in local attitudes, a new sense of responsibility and respect. Perhaps Jaxie, despite his adolescent hostility and mistrustfulness, is somehow symbolic of this miraculous revolution:
Call it a stroke of luck, answered prayer. After a miracle what you end up with is me. Me, motherfuckers!
And there he is, this utterly unique personification, bursting from the red earth in his steel caps and camos, like the resurgent spirit of a land that has been beaten down, despised, abused – but will not die. JR
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Tim Winton, The Shepherd’s Hut". Subscribe here.