He lives and yet does not live; he’s flesh and yet not. He’s John Simpson, ill-fated stretcher-bearer of Gallipoli turned national myth, and in this short novel by Wayne Macauley, he’s dredged up from the mists of time along with Murphy the donkey, who accompanies him on his endless quest to find the Inland Sea. “We follow the vast network of fissures and gullies inland,” he says, “leaning on charity where we must, paying our way where we can.” He pauses to read The Lucky Country and perform minor miracles on ordinary Australians. But Simpson and his donkey have never made it across state lines; on their last attempt (the 28th) they were beset by wasps.
Macauley is a mean satirist with a gift for finding the queasy depths in apparently soft targets; in his wonderful novel The Cook, what seem like easy marks – the pretences of the kinds of people who’d hire a private cook – are mined for all the social ickiness they actually conceal. In this book, there’s a different relationship between critique and comedy; the sweetness of the Simpson myth is right there on the surface, which makes it a discomfiting vehicle for the stories of the lost souls he meets along the way. Together, these characters form a mosaic of desperation, inequality and sometimes gendered violence. How they interact with Simpson is never predictable, but they always shift his context; from story to story, his services seem oppressive, inadequate or futile.
Macauley also works hard to turn Simpson into a character. He seems at times inscrutable and otherworldly, and at times quite sad, but this creates space for the character to surprise you with tenderness, insight or even silliness, including a utopian dream of housing “all those who have laboured on the margins, crawled in the lowlands, been cast out and abused … there will be chops and sausages, vegetarian hamburgers too, great piles of mashed potato there will be”. It reminds us that myths can be self-conscious but still be myths, with attendant powers and limits.
At the end of the novel, the reader isn’t wondering how applicable Simpson is to contemporary Australia; Simpson Returns is set in 2003, as if to stave off this potential reading. Instead, we’re asking questions specific to this story, about how compassion works and what it really is. It’s an unusual renewal of an ordinary myth, not always simple to interpret.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Wayne Macauley, Simpson Returns". Subscribe here.