Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stranger in Galah by Michael Barrett


They drove on. The atmosphere began to oppress Deane more heavily. Nothing in sight, bare earth and the groups of cattle standing, motionless. The harsh sun poured down over the plain, a white ball of light. When they were close he saw the beasts were mere skeletons, filthy hides draped over their scarecrow backs. They stood gaunt, legs splayed out, unmoving: specter-like symbols of doom and destruction. Only their horns were smooth and unchanged; their great eyes had a glazed, vacant stare. They did not see, they did not hear the car pass. They just stood, trance-like. The woman glanced at Deane. She stopped the car, switched off the engine. Then the silence was something frightening. Absolute, utter silence over the vast paddock and desolate earth. No wind, no movement, no life. The dying animals with the empty eyes. Time stood still, waiting for death. Deane shifted uneasily. One of the cattle nearby went down with slow finality into that long-promised death. It sank to its knees, rolled over with the same complete silence to the bare earth. A nightmare, death-watch quality hung over the scene.

Here we have an “Outback Western” or “Bush Western” or more simply a novel of the Australian Frontier.

Written in 1958 the offered passage tells the power of one aspect of this novel—it has the pervasive punishing drought down pat. The baking heat, the red grit in the teeth, all hold center as characters in the tale.

Also strong, the opening—I will not give it away, but it calls to mind the ruthlessness of the opening of Elmore Leonard’s superior Valdez is Coming.

The opening third held this reader in thrall and then…well, then it seems to spin its wheels in the femme fatale/noir land of the Fawcett Gold Medal Line circa 1950s.

Yes, there were superior authors working in those hallowed paperbacks, but much, if one is honest, is merely rote pushing of sweaty passions around pat checkerboards of repetitive plots.

This plot deals much with race and to do so portrays some characters as callous bigots, which is necessary but…even our protagonist does not come off much better.

There is something patronizing and dismissively paternalistic about the novel. If it had hewed to its opening toughness, it might have weathered these difficulties better, but as it becomes more formulaic the patronizing becomes merely lazy and possibly indicative of true attitudes which is…a bit uncomfortable.

In short, I thought I had an undiscovered classic in my hands for the first two thirds of the novel and then…well, there is still skill here. There is power.

A power that fails in the end for this reader.

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