Whacko

Tim Winton was 21 years old when he published his first novel. Since then, Cloudstreet has been widely acclaimed as the Great Australian Novel. You can watch it in the form of a TV miniseries. When I was in Perth, Australia —where Winton was born and raised — street banners announced yet another Cloudstreet stage revival.

Like many authors, novice or otherwise, Winton had a much more modest aim in mind. He started with an interest in family and family legend. But when he sought out those places sacred to his family, most were gone. Childhood homes, family farms, places of worship and courtship felled by the wrecking ball.

And so Winton had no choice but to re-imagine the Perth his grandparents and parents had known. To pay homage to his elders.

In a sense the novel began as an attempt to capture some of the stories that had endured in my family, tales of Biblical hauls of fish and epic journeys on the Swan when that river still teemed with life, and images so vivid I’d grown to believe I’d seen them myself.

Tim Winton, Afterword to Cloudstreet (Picador Classics 2015)

Those images include a man who loses four fingers in a boating accident, when they fell to the deck and danced like half a pound of live prawns. We meet a woman who lives in a canvas tent behind the family home, just as Winton’s grandmother once did. Cloudstreet is a faded Polaroid picture of Perth as it once was: the biggest country town in the world trying to be a city.

Luck

When Cloudstreet opens, Sam Pickles and his family are living off the charity of Sam’s cousin. Then the cousin suddenly dies and Sam finds himself the owner of a house in faraway Perth.

It turns out to be a grand old place with 20 rooms, a veranda, and iron lace to decorate the front. There’s a garden with fruit trees and a fish pond that runs all the way down to the railway tracks. But the place has gone wild, inside and out. Luckily, Sam’s inheritance includes a big bag of money.

But Sam is a gambler and an unlucky one at that.

His luck waxed and waned. Like a gambler he thought the equation was about even, though any plant, animal or mineral could have told him he was on a lifelong losing streak.

Sam is now stuck with a house and nothing to eat. Enter the Lambs: God-fearing folk with a boatload of children. They’re poor but energetic. They believe in themselves and hard work. Tragedy has turned them away from their farm and onto the road to Perth.

Just near the crest of a hill where the sun is ducking down, the old flatbed Chev gives up the fight and stalls quiet. Out on the tray the kids groan like an opera. All around, the bush has gone the colour of a cold roast. Birds scuffle out of sight. There’s no wind, though the Chev gives out a steamy fart.

The Lambs are willing to pay to sleep anywhere that will have them. Sam Pickles is a man in need of hard cash though he doesn’t miss the joke. It’s gunna sound like a counter lunch — Lamb and Pickles.

One Roof

The Lambs get cracking. The garden is uprooted to make room for onion, cabbage, and potato. A fowlhouse and a pigsty soon follow. The Lambs eat better and more than the Pickleses just on the other side of the thin wall. But the Lambs need money, too. They turn their front room into a shop. The shop flourishes and soon all of Perth knows to go to Cloud Street for the best pasties and ice cream.

After a time the shop was Cloud Street, and people said it, Cloudstreet, in one word. Bought the cauli at Cloudstreet. Skip over to Cloudstreet, willya love, and buy us a tin of Bushells and a few slices of ham. Cloudstreet.

Wouldn’t you know it but the house on Cloudstreet is haunted? Everyone feels the presence of the angry white woman and the sad Abo girl but only Fish Lamb can see them. Fish is the middle son. Samson is his real name but his siblings took to calling him samsonfish or just Fish for short. The favorite child, the funny one whom everyone loves, the one who gets dragged under a prawn net one night and loses the better part of himself.

Fish will remember. All his life and all his next life he’ll remember this dark, cool plunge where sound and light and shore are gone, where something rushes him from afar, where, open-mouthed, openfisted, he drinks in river, whales it in with complete surprise.

An ear for language

Winton says it was Fish Lamb’s voice hot and wet in my ear that guided him in the writing of Cloudstreet. That language draws me into Winton’s world. As I read Cloudstreet while in Perth, I hear the slang all around me. Carn (come on) and gwan (go on).

Other turns of phrase belong to another time. A larrikin is a naughty though goodhearted young lad. A drongo is an idiot. Whacko is how either would describe a net brimming with mullet fish or a brand new car in the driveway.

If I were ever to be cast away with a single book to await rescue, I hope that book would be a dictionary of Australian slang.

Philip Hensher, Introduction to Cloudstreet

Winton names his characters Fish and Quick. When it comes time for Quick to name his own son, you know the kid’s going to get a raw deal. The boy has just been born and the afterbirth still shines on his skin. The babe is handed about from one family member to the other while his mother must still deliver herself of the placenta.

Lookit the little larrikin. He’s a homebuilt Harry if I ever saw one. […]
He’s waxy, says Quick.
Wax Harry, Lester grins.

Cloudstreet pulses with Lambs and Pickleses. The final chapter takes us down to Swan River where the combined tribes celebrate a family milestone. They bring blankets and tablecloths, cold chickens and lettuce salad, a never-used set of white linen napkins. An accordion winds up and the Lambs and Pickleses dance while passersby grin and nudge.

I’d heard these stories told and retold as I lay, half-listening, in the back seat of a car or beneath the dining table or up a fig tree.

Tim Winton, Afterword

Whacko!

14 April 2020 | Karen Kao