Books

Tony Birch
Dark as Last Night

Tony Birch has published four short story collections in a little over a decade, a dedication to the form with few comparisons in contemporary Australian literature. He writes stories as Ernest Hemingway suggested a true practitioner of the craft should – with the devotion of a priest and the guts of a burglar – but he also shares with the great Modernist a determination to winnow inessentials. Perhaps because he was raised in straitened circumstances, Birch has become adept at making do with less.

Take the collection’s eponymously titled opener, which introduces the reader to a world constructed of little more than shadows and fear: “In the final weeks before my younger brother was due to be born, my mother carried her weighty stomach around the house, cooking and scrubbing in silence. Her legs were laced with dark varicose veins and her face worn to the bone. Her body would shake when she heard Dad’s workboots scrape against the front doorstep.”

There is such economy in these lines. Stories of poverty, labour, violence and subjection are literally written on the mother’s body, while that swelling uterine presence contains a lifetime more in implication, with the witnessing voice allowing readers to triangulate the domestic space. But note the final sentence. The fourth presence is granted patriarchal capitalisation but no specific name. “Dad”, the unspecified progenitor: the noun who wears the boots in the household.

The story unfolds from this paragraph with measured relentlessness. We presume the father has come back altered from war. He’s both more tightly bound and falling apart. He demands an impossible level of homemaking perfection from his wife, and, on his drinking nights, punishes her for any shortcomings. The witnessing narrator, the mother’s young daughter, is only intermittently more successful at hiding from his rage.

“Dark as Last Night” gives little away in terms of when or where the story takes place. That emerges from the expectations held by characters, the structures of feeling they inhabit. It is a time when families suffering from domestic violence do not go to the police. It is an era during which European migrants – such as the woman living near this wounded family who takes the narrator into her house and under her wing – are regarded as dangerous exotics, even witches.

Birch mainly practises a lyrical realism – his prose is beautiful in its sense of restraint – so it’s a surprise when the story concludes with a superstitious shiver and a satisfying comeuppance. The collection’s remaining pieces have a documentary rigour and are short on happy endings, fictions that bear witness to the inner lives and dramas of those traditionally excluded from the imaginative attentions of Australian literature.

This can result in narratives of surprising tenderness. In “After Life”, which has a distinctly autobiographical feel, the narrator, Joe, tells the story of cleaning the housing commission flat of his younger brother, Charlie, who has recently died alone, after two decades of social isolation. As Joe and his grieving sister Angie scrub the rooms and pack up the man’s meagre possessions for charity, they encounter other residents of the grey, concrete-cancer riddled estate.

Many of these people have been broken by life and are living on the fumes of the welfare state. Yet each of them reveals to Joe and Angie familiarity with and affection for their supposedly solitary brother, knowledge that at first surprises and then delights them. Nothing much happens – just a gentle, tentative unfurling of human decency – but it propels Joe into a reconsideration of the scope and worth of his brother’s life.

Other stories crackle with black humour and violence. In “Animal Welfare”, a small-time criminal and addict named Denny assaults an older man in a truckies’ pub on the edge of an unnamed city. The man has been relaying a scabrous story to the addict’s girlfriend about Michael Jackson’s famous pet, Bubbles.

“I couldn’t believe,” says Denny, having stove in the head of the older man with a chair, “that the truck driver could be implying that Michael Jackson, the same singer of one of my all-time favourite pop songs, ‘I Want You Back’, may have had sexual relations with a chimpanzee.”

It’s an uncomfortable laugh that dies in the throat when it becomes clear that Denny’s anger has less to do with celebrity calumny and more to do with the fact that he himself is a Black man.

Others still have the plain-speaking, tough-minded quality of mid-century kitchen sink drama. In “The Librarian”, a young man narrates the events that led to his expulsion from school at the age of 15. It is an antic, comic tale after a fashion – the boy gets into trouble when he steals the Christmas cake he had baked in home economics, lacking the money to pay for it and too ashamed to admit his poverty – but when, as punishment, he is made to work for the school librarian, Miss Costa, an unlikely friendship grows between them.

It is Miss Costa’s suggestion to the boy he read Camus’ The Outsider that furnishes him with a philosophical model for rebellion and an intellectual lifeline. The story’s end may find him working tables in a department store cafe, but we know Birch was himself expelled at the same age and worked as a bike delivery rider afterwards. This may be fiction but the notion of books as saving objects feels powerfully real on the page.

The austere moralism of Birch’s vision is not always successfully realised. Some of the stories in Dark as Last Night are so stripped down that their narrative engine can’t be started. But what remains common throughout is a sense of the author’s honesty, decency and commitment to the rigours of his craft.

Geordie Williamson

University of Queensland Press, 219pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Dark as Last Night, Tony Birch".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson