by Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin
Published October, 2013
Silence pervades much of Alex Miller’s Coal Creek. Characters, in particular our guide and narrator, Bobby Blue, rarely vocalise their thoughts. And this silence is golden, if we accept Bobby’s world view. Growing up helping his father mustering in the 1930s and 40s, Bobby tells us: ‘This was the way all them old fellows did it. They indicated. And we understood them.’ In the post-war Queensland highlands, a look or gesture means more than rivers of words. Those who analyse the ways of that country in speech have a deficit of understanding rather than a surplus.
Bobby has two moral and spiritual guides throughout this story: his father and his mother. Their presence dominates the opening pages. In the first substantial scene, Bobby recalls learning of his mother’s death when he was still a boy. This is preceded only by her telling him: ‘We all hang on the cross, Bobby Blue. Don’t you forget it.’ And he doesn’t. Bobby’s devotion is such that he calls his horse, which he adores and trusts completely, Mother. A decade later, he buries his father beside his mother, after his dad falls from a horse. ‘It was 1946 or 47 when Dad died. I know the facts but I am not reliable around the dates and numbers, so do not hold me to the year exactly.’ At the age of twenty, Bobby is effectively without family. His only brother, Charley, has gone elsewhere after never winning the favour of his father.
But Bobby is resourceful, and carries with him the gift of his parents’ teachings. From his father he has learnt horsemanship, hardness, dignity and the value of silence (‘he was a silent man and he did not smile a lot, and that made people careful around him’). From his mother he has learnt his place in the world, the inevitability and perhaps the value of suffering. And from both he has received a moral code to live by – one drawn in part from Christianity, but not expressed in ritual – and love. His mother, we learn later, was raised by nuns, who had nursed her back to health after a collapse when she was a girl – a recovery they saw as ‘the work of their faith in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’. Bobby recalls his mother’s ‘special love for me that I was never to know again from any woman but one’, and that the last words he heard from his father were ‘I love you, son’. Again and again, the words of his mother and his father comfort him in times of difficulty, as if the scarcity of their words has only added to their weight.
Further into the novel, when Bobby has formed a bond with twelve-year-old Irie, he will remind us again of the superfluousness of words:
Irie seen the world in the same colours I seen it. We had no need to speak of this but knew it to be so between us. We could smile and mean things neither she nor I wished to speak of, but a feeling that was fine and good passed between us on those occasions. Things that was not words but was better than words lay between me and Irie. Words is not much when it comes to them feelings.
There are few spoken words in this novel, and what speech there is appears without inverted commas or other indications of spoken word. Which is a good decision, the words blended into running text and merging with Bobby’s consciousness.
In a vernacular that often reaches into the poetic, Bobby tells how, after the death of his father and years of working cattle with his friend Ben Tobin, he takes a job assisting the new constable in his home town of Mount Hay. Daniel Collins had served during the war in New Guinea, afterwards joining the Queensland Police Service. He arrives from Brisbane, where he has completed his police training, with his wife Esme and daughters Irie and nine-year-old Miriam.
The gulf between the locals, who come from and know the inland, and those who come from the urbanised regions of the coast is quickly established: ‘To people like the Collins, Mount Hay was what they called the outback, but to us it was just Mount Hay.’ Moreover, Daniel and Esme arrive with their own well-meaning, civilising agendas: ‘They surely thought we was a bunch of country hicks and they know better than we did how to do things and did not think they had nothing to learn. But they had never been out in country like the ranges and was coastal people.’
Unlike his retired predecessor George Wilson, who would let local problems sort themselves out in their own ‘natural’ way and intervene only when he had to, Daniel Collins plays things ‘by the book’. Literally. He has brought with him a small personal library of books on subjects such as geology and history, and he carries a notebook in which he jots his observations of life in Mount Hay and the answers he receives from the many questions he asks. He is a kind of amateur anthropologist. His wife conducts working bees, revives the town’s tennis club and introduces ballroom dancing. These things do not last. The dancing is short lived, the tennis club flickers with life briefly before the courts fall back into disrepair. The local women think Esme Collins merely uppish and mock her behind her back. According to Bobby, Daniel’s questions build a gulf rather than a bridge between him and the locals, and Bobby sometimes gives Daniel the answers he thinks he wants to hear. When Daniel wants to understand the local Aborigines, Bobby points him ‘at this or that individual who I knew was going to tell him they did not know where the sacred places he was talking about was. Which is their way … They was so polite to him it was a wonder he did not see they was fooling around with him.’
The arrival of an outsider in a small town is a staple of the western in paperback and film, and has figured in Miller’s work since publication of his first two novels, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain (1988), which is also set in northern Queensland, and The Tivington Nott (1989). The relationship between a police officer and his junior can similarly be a genre set piece, but is also found in more ‘literary’ novels. In the recent Australian context, we might think of the quiet ridicule of Constable Hall by his Aboriginal juniors Sandy One and Sandy Two in Kim Scott’s Benang: From the Heart (1999). But where Scott deploys humour and satire, Miller resists the comedic to suggest impending tragedy. The turn of events is flagged early, in Bobby’s memories of his father:
If my dad had seen the bad way my life and Ben’s went after he was gone over to the other side he would wish he might have had the chance to step in and redirect us with one of those indicating signs of his before we was too far caught up in that trouble.
For Bobby, his father had the ability to see things. Daniel Collins observes and notes constantly, yet sees nothing. This unseeing on the part of Daniel and Esme will have dire ramifications. Their inability to read their new environment, one in which they had (to Bobby’s mind) intended to have only a short adventuresome stay, is at the core of the novel. But it is Bobby Blue’s old and new friendships – with Ben Tobin and Irie – that drive the plot. This is a beautifully structured novel. Miller skilfully increases the tension as the plot unfolds. We know things will take a turn for the worse. We don’t know in what way.
Ben Tobin is a young man brought up tough. By the time he was fifteen, he was already a master bushman, helping his and Bobby’s dads round up wild cattle. His father was a violent man: ‘There was an anger in Ben in them days that his dad put there with all the beatings he give him as a boy.’ Bobby, two years his junior, is his best friend. Despite Ben’s occasional bouts of aggression, Bobby loves him: ‘I think I am the only man who ever loved Ben Tobin. But I did. And once you love someone you always love them. Dead or alive.’
Ben lives at nearby Coal Creek, and has taken up with a young Aboriginal girl, Deeds, who is ‘not much more than a child’. Deeds’ auntie, Rosie Gnapun, appears at the Collins’ house to tell Daniel that Ben has been beating up Deeds. Esme, who ‘had a strong hold over Daniel in her opinions’, convinces her husband to arrest Ben, though there is no other evidence to support the claim. Bobby knows Rosie has a grudge against Ben, but says nothing, as is so often the case in this novel. He lets Daniel Collins make his own discoveries, such as they are, and his own mistakes.
When Ben calmly accepts his arrest by Collins and pleads guilty to assault, spending a month in prison in Townsville, Bobby believes his friend ‘thought being arrested and going to gaol was something that was due to him, the way a reward of some kind is felt by other men to be their due … a kind of respect that was owed to him’. He also suspects Ben of plotting a revenge upon Collins. Meanwhile, Irie has been teaching the illiterate Bobby to read and write. Bobby’s progress brings him closer to Irie. For a time, his new ability to read also pleases Esme: ‘I seen that after all her plans for improving Mount Hay come to nothing, Esme must have begun to see me as her one and only Mount Hay success.’
The novel is, in a sense, a testament to Irie’s tutoring: it is Bobby’s account that we now read. The young man of few words has, years later, written many. His words have traction. Through Bobby, Miller builds tension. The Queensland landscape of the novel is vast, yet depicted intimately and with love. In novels such as The Ancestor Game (1992), Journey to the Stone Country (2002) and Landscape of Farewell (2007) Miller has previously worked this country well, just as he worked it in the 1950s as a farmhand and stockman. It is country he knows:
The morning was half gone. The sound of the creek roaring. I liked to hear the roar of a creek in flood. It was the sound of the country breathing after a long dry spell of holding its breath. That is how it always seemed to me, as if the country was letting it all out in a rush.
Miller’s respect for the honesty and decency of ordinary people shines through. He vividly portrays how those who have lived in the hinterland inhabit it:
When you live as we lived our lives in the scrubs you know you are not the boss of nothing and there is the sky and the eagles and the scrubs going on forever into them great stone escarpments.
We are reminded again and again of the contrast between Bobby and Daniel in their understandings of land – of these ranges, in particular. Bobby knows this land intimately, can navigate it in the dark. It is, almost literally, his own backyard. The only people who might know the land more intimately are Ben Tobin and the Murri elders, the Old People. Daniel is not completely devoid of bush skills, but his efforts pale by comparison. He will always be an outsider to the land and the people on it.
Underlining his outsider status, Bobby notes Daniel watching him roll a cigarette: ‘He said, I was never a smoker. I had guessed that. I never felt easy with a man who did not enjoy a smoke.’ We might think here of Bo Rennie in Journey to the Stone Country: a man who knows his country and is forever rolling a cigarette.
Miller runs the risk here of repeating older, hagiographic images of men on the land. Real men of the country ask no questions, offer few words, but hold strong convictions on what is and what isn’t. And they roll their own. Nevertheless, that a ringer in the late 1940s might roll his own cigarettes is unsurprising, and to my mind Bobby Blue is a more intriguing and nuanced character than Bo Rennie. In Journey to the Stone Country, the narrator, Annabelle Beck, holds Bo, an Aboriginal stockman and ranger, in a regard that tests credibility. For much of the novel she seems beguiled by a man she cannot distinctly remember from her past, but who speaks as if he knows her better than she knows herself, and who shows not an iota of interest in her life and career in Melbourne. The only thing he asks her is if she has left her husband – as if to check whether he can now assert his male claim upon her. Despite being an academic who has just left an unfaithful husband, Annabelle gives little indication of having a feminist bone in her body. Neither Bo nor Annabelle compelled this reader.
Yet Bobby and Bo are alike in that neither has the remotest curiosity about affairs beyond their domain. This is, arguably, a form of myopia. Both Bobby and Bo have a self-containment that Miller seems to imply is a strength, but which we might also read as problematic. Outsiders have nothing to offer. In Journey to the Stone Country, this makes Annabelle hesitant to verbalise or act upon what is otherwise her growing intimacy with Bo. In Coal Creek, Bobby, despite his obvious sensitivities and many insights, has little curiosity about where the Collins family has come from, beyond that they have arrived from the coast and that Daniel has served in the war. A striking feature of the narrative is how little impact the war has had on the inhabitants of Mount Hay. Bobby meanwhile believes passing local knowledge on to Daniel is fruitless. This insularity, and more particularly the failure to communicate, contributes to the mutual distrust that eventually concludes in tragedy.
It is through his love of this country that we might see Bo Rennie wooing, even if inadvertently, Annabelle Beck, slowly releasing her from her attachment to a southern capital. In a similar way, in Coal Creek, Bobby Blue bonds with Irie over their shared love of the ranges. Irie is the exception to her family. She is from the coast, but a natural for the country: ‘Light and quick she was, like a moon shadow herself, flickering through the bendee.’ She and Bobby become more and more attached. His attraction to her is not sexualised. They talk – clearly the most Bobby has ever talked in his life. She offers him more than literacy:
As well as teaching me how to read and write she taught me a lot about friendship and how we can talk to each other in ways I never thought of before, and how we can ask each other questions and disagree without getting angry or impatient.
Bobby’s friendships with Ben Tobin and Irie Collins become tests of loyalty and resolve. They raise questions about the different ways in which betrayal might be construed.
The climax of Coal Creek is detailed, lucid, tense – the culmination of events and patterns of behaviour building throughout the novel like storm clouds over those ranges. Of note is how Daniel comes to be depicted as weak, as acting too much on the instruction of Esme. Bobby tells him: ‘You should listen to your own mind, not the mind of your wife.’ This has parallels with Journey to the Stone Country, when Bo Rennie sees John Hearn irresolute and says of the women in his household: ‘Them women are trying to control everything with their hurt feelings, and they’re souring it all.’ What is Miller saying? That good strong men know their own minds and weak men let manipulative women disrupt the natural order? Certainly Miller’s inland is a very muscular, male world, despite (or assuaged by) the tenderness of certain female figures.
In many ways, the story of Coal Creek is one that could have come from an earlier colonial period. Ranges, horses and basic accommodation dominate the setting. Technology of the mid-twentieth century is in short supply. The novel has echoes of a convict tale, but Miller’s understanding of history prevents the work falling into a nationalistic story of white pioneering history reminiscent of Lawson and Paterson.
In his introduction to The Novels of Alex Miller (2012), editor Robert Dixon writes:
At the dark inner core of both Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell is the persistence of violence in human history, especially the frontier violence of colonial Australia: in the first novel, a massacre of Aboriginal men, women and children by the first generation of white settlers in central Queensland, and in the second, a massacre of white settlers by Aboriginal people.
Coal Creek is set in the same uneasy country, and we could read the novel as the third in a trilogy. Past conflict is alluded to, albeit subtly, and conditions are set for a contemporary outbreak of violence. Race relations play a part, and indeed Rosie Gnapun is presumably a relation to Dougal Gnapun and his family (victims of and figures in earlier massacres) who appear in the two earlier novels. A white family arriving in country not their own is again the catalyst for conflict, though the Collins’ motivations are very different.
Throughout, Bobby’s voice is convincing. In lesser hands, the ungrammatical prose might have grated, but he feels authentic. The seeming artlessness of his voice is testament to Miller’s art. The author bestows sensitivity and honesty upon his narrator – things inherent in him in spite of, or because of, his lack of education. Bobby reflects on the needs and motivations of himself and others. He often repeats himself, but with an insight and directness of language that means the repetition – the imagined counsellings of his mother and father, the limitations of Daniel and Esme Collins – denotes meditation rather than cant. Despite his low opinion of the Collins, Bobby never despises them:
People like the Collins knew the city and the coast and they had another way of seeing things that was not our way of seeing things. The Collins wanted to know what they had no need to know … They was not bad people, just ignorant. My mother said the ignorant was to be pitied, not despised.
Pity, of course, is offered to those we think of as inferior. As lacking. It marries here with the allusions to Christianity scattered throughout the novel. Forgive them father, for they know not what they do. Bobby is all but left hanging on the cross, Christ-like, bearing out his mother’s aphorism. And every character suffers loss. The culmination is variously tough, delicate, and moving. Coal Creek closes with a serenity that for some readers might be a contrivance, but for many will prove satisfying. It is not quite the turnaround in fortunes that Rufus Dawes experiences at the end of Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (the second version with the happier ending – Clarke wrote two). But it provides a resolution of sorts and, for the forceful and gripping story we have been told, a rationale. If ever we needed one.
Robert Dixon (editor), The Novels of Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin, 2012).