||Atthe Centre Of Things
by Wayne Grady
WHEN JACK HODGINS set out on a monthlong driveabout through the Australian outbackin the summer of 1989, he didn`t know he was going to write a book about it. Hewas just supposed to be accompanying his friend and fellow novelist RogerMcDonald, doing such non-writerly things as opening gates and consulting mapswhile Roger did the trip`s work researching a non-fiction book aboutAustralia`s Great Shearing Clippers Controversy, known in that country as the"wide-comb dispute," actually a serious scandal in the sheep industryoccasioned by the replacement of two-and-a-halfinch shearing combs withfour-inch ones, so that shearers could shear more sheep faster for the samepay. It really is scandalous, when you think about it, and Hodgins and McDonald were to spend alot of time thinking about it.
Because Hodgins didn`t know he was goingto write a book about the trip, he only took along a few blank notebooks andspent barely 80 per cent of his time
writing in them. Even when he tried tomake travel-writer-type notes - as he did in his hotel in Sydney before theyset out - his notes ended up being the opening pages of a novel rather than thebare bones of a travel book. Later, when the two travellers are actually on theroad, McDonald driving his ancient one-ton truck and Hodgins looking out thewindow, his meditations are more likely to be about the differences between theway novelists and non-fiction writers work. As he notes in a bar where McDonaldis talking to a group of shearers who have come to share their grievances withsomeone who might give them a voice:
Perhaps I was finding out already whatwriting non-fiction could do for you - shift you over from being the puzzledanonymous observer trying to guess at the meaning of what you witnessed tobeing the welcomed and privileged guest. For a change, you didn`t have toobserve from the fringes of things.
As he watches McDonald, however, hebegins to suspect that there is more to writing non-fiction than sitting at thecentre of things taking it all down, just as there is more to writing novelsthan simply inventing the world: "He hadn`t used his tape recorder yet orreached for a notebook, but listened hard - arms folded, his gaze on the table,or on the toe of his forward boot." As the trip proceeds, descriptions ofpeople and landscape begin to replace literary musings in Hodgins`s notebooks,just as fourinch combs replaced two-and-a-half-inch combs in the shearingsheds; it isn`t a huge change, but it`s a significant one. His writing does notbecome less literary, it just becomes more travel writing. No doubt to his owngreat surprise, he finds himself writing non-fiction. But it is non-fictionthat has the unmistakable stamp of Jack Hodgins on it whimsy, humour intenseobservation, sharp insight. In Bateman`s Bay, for example, "a man with aknitted tea-cozy on his head stood fishing off the sea wall boulders."While stranded by a flood in Charleville, he walked along the. main streetwhere a sign in a butcher shop window invited me to buy an entire sheep for$24.( ... Absurdly, I imagined dragging a dead sheep behind me through the restof the trip. "Too much of a bargain to resist.") On a small patch ofgrass to the right stood an awkward piece of machinery which I imagined was theinfamous Steiger Vortex Gun, invented as a desperate attempt to end the droughtof 1902 by shooting the sky.
Australia this may be to the core, butfor admirers of The Invention of the World and Innocent Cities, it is also pureHodgins country. The fictional skew doesn`t leave him, of course. Thecharacters who intruded into his note-taking in Sydney follow him or is hefollowing them? - through Balranald and Milparinka, Tibooburra and Thargominday,Mungo Park and Broken Hill, fleshing out their story, weaving in and out of hisnarrative, proving that fiction and non-fiction are as distinct as kangaroosand wallabies. When Hodgins tells a friend about salmon fishing in BritishColumbia, he realizes that "No one here has heard of the life-cycle of thesalmon. It began to seem, even to me, like something I was making up as I wentalong." Elsewhere, the bleak reality of the Australian landscape seemsalmost to defeat imagination:
There was almost a biblical feet to thisgreat flat dry expanse of harsh blue sky ... I tried to call up the sounds ofsheep bleating and dogs barking, or the image of horsemen galloping across thedusty paddock after some breakaway group - but could not.
What to do with this wealth of materialthat both excites and exhausts the imagination, but turn it into a book thatblends fiction and non-fiction, fact and fancy, history and myth, observationand invention - and to just call it damned fine writing? As Hodgins has been doingall his life. Over 40 in Broken Hill is not a departure from the road that Hodginshas always travelled in his novels; it is simply the same road seen from thepassenger`s side.