The Crossroads Hotel in Casula has gained the kind of infamy that most venues in 2021 want to avoid. In June the hotel became ground zero for the Covid-19 outbreak in the multiracial, largely working-class area of south-west Sydney. The starkly different, militarised response to this outbreak, compared with those in the eastern suburbs, has arguably done more to entrench Sydney’s west–east divide than any other event in the city’s history.
The Crossroads is also something of a narrative linchpin in Max Easton’s debut novel, The Magpie Wing. As well as being the site of various epiphanies about class, family and belonging, the hotel sits at the heart of the Cumberland Plain, the borders of which are used by one protagonist, Walt, to demarcate a distinct “nation” in his semi-ironic separatist manifesto.
Walt, Helen and Duncan are raised in the suburbs of the south-west (although Walt might ask, “south-west of what?”) In Walt and Helen’s early years, the Magpies NRL team offers a tenuous sense of structure and community, but – as the sexism and covert racism within the sport reveal themselves – it soon becomes the first in a long line of life’s disappointments. Drawn to the not-so-bright lights of the inner west, Walt desperately seeks community and solidarity, whether through football, punk music or the splintered groups of the left, but is constantly thwarted. “They’re all about the unity of people,” he says in an optimistic moment to Helen.
Spanning almost three decades, the novel moves at a hectic pace. Whirlwind relationships, family ruptures and personal crises rise and fall within a page or three, telegraphing their consequences without allowing us to sit with them. The fleeting explorations of Sydney’s working-class history are compelling and Easton’s writing is at its best when describing the particulars of punk music (Easton produces a podcast about DIY-punk). There is a genuine, sometimes belaboured, preoccupation with the tension in the punk scene between resisting cultural commodification and, with its growing middle-class membership, becoming what Walt calls “the vanguard of gentrification”. But even this world is lightly sketched and its other members remain largely anonymous. Unless you’re already familiar with the DIY scene and the sense of belonging it offers, it’s difficult to appreciate its grungy appeal through the main characters’ cynicism.
Nevertheless, The Magpie Wing is an enjoyable if rough-around-the-edges story about the search for community and fulfilment, in a world where both can feel hopelessly out of reach.
Giramondo, 256pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 30, 2021 as "The Magpie Wing, Max Easton".
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