Books

Sean O’Beirne
A Couple of Things Before the End

Every so often we’re reminded with a jolt that Australian realism doesn’t – to use Patrick White’s phrase – have to be dun-coloured. In fact it can be kinky, it can be ludic, it can be in the tradition of that shaggiest of shaggy-dog stories, Furphy’s Such Is Life, which begins with that immortal and immemorially appealing Australian sentiment, “Unemployed at last!”

This book of stories by Sean O’Beirne, A Couple of Things Before the End, is a kind of mausoleum of Australian familiarities that creep into the mind the way athlete’s foot might creep between toes.

It is a book about all sorts of things – weird and wonderful stories of national inanities and more or less rebarbative idiocies. Scout camps in which the world is nonsense. Military careers of great incoherence. Mothers who look like monsters, a whole panorama of neo-banalities that assail the mind like the regurgitated horror of the returning repressed. A Couple of Things Before the End bites you by the ear and says the Henry Lawson tradition and all its putative heirs, up to and including Frank Moorhouse, have no right to exist.

How does a Sean O’Beirne story go? Well, a narrator might muse his way through the royal family, ticking off qualities, overly familiar or otherwise, about Prince Philip, or Harry’s Nazi uniform, or Tony Abbott’s taste in knighthoods, with a rollicking and fulsome sense of irrelevance that is at once self-delighting and random – rather in the ancient manner of a Beat poem.

Or a young woman on a boat sailing to Britain – where else? this is the 1950s – is intensely aware of Barry Humphries. She tells the story of how he played Orsino for the Union Repertory Company, and how he decided to give the character a dreadful hump made up of tights, making an awful impression. And then, here on the ship, he started doing strange things to the beef Wellington, grabbed from the captain’s table, and then he was being sick everywhere, and his wife, Ros, the New Zealand one, was trying to clean up. What can our narrator give but her sad little notes about playing cards with a girlfriend?

O’Beirne gives indications of a nifty, not unoriginal parodistic bent, and of an ability to master a world he refuses to duplicate conventionally, knowing the kind of facts an overtly mimetic writer might spurn. This is an idiosyncratic debut full of grit and polish.

Peter Craven

Black Inc, 208pp, $27.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "Sean O’Beirne, A Couple of Things Before the End".

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Reviewer: Peter Craven

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