Wayne Marshall’s debut collection of short stories is a book that can be wholly judged by its cover. On it, a burly bloke embraces a kangaroo who wears a Carlton footy vest – a queer romantic scene that is backlit by the gentle glow of a telly. Marshall’s schtick is injecting Australian tropes with fabulist twists: everything is not what it first seems.
Shirl peels back the veneer of Australiana – backyard cricket, beers at the pub, afternoons at the local pool – to reveal the absurd. In these stories, a fisherman hauls in an unexpected catch, a man becomes love struck with an unlikely paramour, a funeral honours the death of sport, a woman pays to have her emotional and physical limits tested, and a man is sentenced to death for his repeated social faux pas.
Marshall embraces the reader with gentle nostalgia and an accessible writing style that has Australian vernacular and cultural references confettied throughout: Bundy rum, Nutri-Grain, Mr Whippy. With this collection, he joins Australian writers such as Wayne Macauley, Shaun Prescott, Ryan O’Neill and Julie Koh – as well as his fellow Bacchus Marsh native Peter Carey – in subverting our national identity through acute satire. All these stories slay the sacred cows of Australian identity – mateship, booze culture and deification of sporting heroes – but Marshall’s main preoccupation is with cauterising Australia’s unique brand of masculinity. The best stories in Shirl read as perverse yet tender fables of male shame and loneliness.
At the too-young age of 32, Marshall discovered he had stage 3 bowel cancer; he wrote these stories in the aftermath of his diagnosis. He has freed himself to experiment with narrative, and while some stories are less accomplished than others, all brim with a cheeky, childlike glee. Marshall lets his imagination run wild and has fun pulling the proverbial rug out from under the reader.
Many of the stories in Shirl have been previously published in Australian literary journals, and the collection was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. These good yarns are underpinned by an astute dismantling of our social foundations – and if there was ever a time for a deep examination of our cultural follies and foibles, surely that time is now.
Affirm, 288pp, $26.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Wayne Marshall, Shirl". Subscribe here.