This is a classic tale of the civilised man from the coast going mad in the barbarous interior. John Grant is a country-town school teacher on his way back to Sydney for the summer. However, because of problems with his flight, he gets stuck for one night in the Yabba, a town based on Broken Hill in the West of NSW. Author Kenneth Cook spent time in Broken Hill himself and he recreates the atmosphere in brilliantly cynical fashion. Wake in Fright was his first novel and it’s certainly the most well known.
As young school teachers everywhere, except perhaps Norway, Grant is pretty broke. He is befriended by the local policeman, Jock Crawford, in a pub and introduced to ‘two up’ a coin tossing game that men bet on. The copper is only too happy to shout Grant beers as he gets them for free while on duty. The peer pressure to drink beer is immense throughout the book, and the amber liquid, that initially gives relief from mental anguish, inevitably leads to greater horrors.
There is a girl Grant loves in Sydney but he isn’t confident of his chances with her given his financial situation. Two up is an oh so simple game – and the intoxicated Grant after some initial success throws his pay cheque – that needed to last him the entire summer – away gambling on it. He now has no way of leaving the Yabba – no money for food or shelter. However, there will always be somebody happy to buy him a beer and tell him what a great place the Yabba is – it’s a sinister form of hospitality and friendliness that he really would be better off without. John Grant can’t see the beauty of this place on the edge of the outback, for him it’s the South Canaan of the Philistines and Sodom and Gomorrah all rolled into one.
What follows is a bizarre and grueling, but I don’t doubt true to life, account of alcoholism, illicit sex, philistinism and animal cruelty. There is a great movie version of this book, but the kangaroo hunt is my least favourite sequence in it. In the book the hunt is very well written and heart rendering – the hacked-up kangaroos give no clear sign of their pain through crying or facial expressions, and that makes the cruelty of the shotgun and knife wielding ‘hunters-for-kicks’ all the more unbearable. Often I find that human on animal cruelty is more horrifying than human on human cruelty in literature. Don’t be put off, there are funny parts in this book too – it’s certainly an original work and an interesting comment on Australian society. It’s one of the best Australian novels I’ve read, and I don’t know of any work close to this tragic (semi-)satire written by a New Zealand author.
Five stars here and one of those cases where you are happy that a cult movie led you to a really interesting book. In the novel there are possibly even more beers imbibed than in the movie – and that’s saying something. Have a look for yourself, someone has made a highly entertaining montage featuring every drink of booze in the movie:
Photo: still from the movie “Wake in Fright”