Review: Peter Pierceon Robert Drewe

The Assignments of Robert Drewe: Montebello

Deep into his fourth decade as a published author, Robert Drewe has written Montebello, ‘a memoir’, described in the blurb as a ‘moving sequel’ to his previous work of autobiography, The Shark Net (2000). Yet just as that earlier work was much else besides a bildungsroman – especially as it retold the tale of the Perth serial killer, Eric Cooke (who had worked for Dunlop, whose Western Australian branch was managed by Drewe’s father, Roy) – so Montebello is much less uncluttered and serene than its sub-title suggests. While its core is a visit to the Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast (the blurb again: ‘the territory that he held in his imagination since childhood’), where Britain exploded its first atomic bomb on 3 October 1952, we are given much else. Here are stories that Drewe has not had time to tell before, others that he has told and which now reappear in fresh versions. Involved also is a persistent retrospect on his career, a process less nostalgic than it is interested in the fashioning of his reputation.

After a dedication to, among others, his seven children, an In Memoriam for his friend, the literary scholar and cultural diplomat, Bruce Bennett (1941-2012), and epigraphs from Joseph Conrad’s Youth (1902) and H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), Drewe plunges us into a packed first chapter, ‘The Fats Domino Voice’. His rented cottage on the cliff edge at Broken Head in northern New South Wales has been battered by the trailing edge of a cyclone. He has just killed a brown snake. His life insurance policy has expired and his seven-year-old daughter and youngest child, Anna, needs to be sung to sleep. On top of that, his step-mother, aunt and uncle have recently died, leaving him the eldest surviving member of his family.  He still resents the leaving, two years before, of the woman who ‘had been my partner for twenty-five years’ (this was Candida Baker, but he won’t give her a name). In spite of all this, Drewe finds that it is time to write again: ‘I was actually galvanised by melancholy’.

The result is Montebello. In explaining its inception, Drewe also mentions two of his previous works, the novel The Drowner (1996) and his most recent collection of short stories, The Rip (2008). It will not be till two thirds of the way through Montebello that he returns to the beginning of his career as a writer of fiction.

In 1959, on his eighteenth birthday, Drewe took a cadetship as a reporter with the West Australian at $23.80 per week. He had also been offered a post as a trainee cartoonist. (Cartoons and cartooning are a repeated motif in his work.) Three years later, he was tempted back east, to Melbourne (where he was born in 1943) to work for Graham Perkin at the Age. From 1970 to 1976, he was in Sydney, first at the Australian and then the Bulletin. For a time, he lived in the Euroka Street house that Henry Lawson had rented. But Drewe wanted to be a novelist, not a journalist. As he recalls in Montebello, ‘in my head I was calling this first novel, with ominous Robert Ludlum overtones, The Genocide Thesis. I worked at night on my little pea-green Olivetti on the kitchen table.’

This story became part of Drewe’s first novel, The Savage Crows (1976), and there is another version in Fortune (1986). In the former, Stephen Crisp is a television journalist who is writing a novel on the quiet, so as to avoid the derision of his colleagues. He has left his wife for a girlfriend who later ditches him. Resigning from the ‘Commission’, he accepts an Australia Council grant to research the genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines. His focus is the journals of their so-called Protector, George Augustus Robinson. The novel takes the formal risk of falling into two parts: the contemporary narrative of the making of Crisp’s book and the historical one of the 1830s, in which Robinson seeks to gather the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines in supposed places of refuge. Considered in another way, just as Crisp finds a subject for his research and a new vocation, so The Savage Crows is a parable of Drewe’s change of path. As a historical fiction of Van Diemen’s Land, the novel sits in a solitary place – after the score of books by Roy Bridges (who died in 1952) and Hal Porter’s The Tilted Cross (1961), and before Bryce Courtenay’s The Potato Factory (1995) and Tommo & Hawk (1997), two novels by Englishmen – Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Andrew Motion’s Wainewright the Poisoner (both 2000) – and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish and Tom Gilling’s The Sooterkin (both from the following year).

Drewe’s novel was sufficiently acclaimed for him to gain an Australia Council grant (his for $9000; Crisp’s sum undisclosed). This enabled him to give up journalism, apart from occasional want-enforced returns, and to write his next novel. In Montebello, he claims that ‘academic critics were sniffy about acknowledging the arrivals of the denizens of Grub Street, those untenured persons unfit to share the life of the mind.’ This is sniffy in itself, although Drewe – who won the first of his two Walkley Awards for journalism in the year that The Savage Crows was published – had much for which to thank that Grub Street training.

From it Drewe learned ‘the hook’, the opening sentence that instantly claims attention. Consider these: ‘After their quarrels, Cullen hid the knives’ (A Cry in the Jungle Bar, 1979); ‘He came up in such a frenzy, holding the elephant tusk, that he almost brained himself’ (Fortune); ‘My son who speaks to me once or twice a year has been to Chad’ (‘The Lawyers of Africa’ in the story collection The Bay of Contented Men, 1989); ‘The lion is out of sorts’ (in Drewe’s redaction of the Ned Kelly story, Our Sunshine, 1991). (Lions – whether in dreams, the South Perth zoo or the MGM credits – are another of his motifs).

Drewe has been explicit about what he sees as the likenesses of journalism and fiction. He crystallised his view after writing, in Fortune, of the American Life cartoonist, Leon Lennon: ‘investigative reporting, or indeed writing a traditional novel, is also largely a matter of attaining the continuous line, of making the connections, of maintaining the flow of narrative.’ Of course, continuous lines can loop and circle, take their time before coming to a stop. Moreover, in Montebello, the line is broken rather then continuous, chopped into numerous short segments, as the  book moves backwards and forwards in time.

The journalist-cum-novelist must surely have been aware of some of his many Australian predecessors. In an excellent article, ‘Birth of a novelist, death of a journalist’, David Conley begins with the case of Drewe. He shows how very far from uncommon was such a trajectory. Besides citing overseas and historical examples – notably Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain – Conley produces a remarkable appendix of 168 Australian authors who bridged the supposed divide. Here are some of them: Marcus Clarke and William Lane, Randolph Bedford and Brian Penton, George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Olga Masters, Susan Johnston and Matthew Condon. (Helen Garner’s turn was more in the opposite direction.)

For Drewe, journalistic training, as a way of researching and shaping his fiction, remains vital. One of the stories in The Bodysurfers (1983), about the cover-up of a death-by-fish-poisoning on a Queensland resort island, won him a second Walkley Award as a journalistic account published in the Bulletin. A journalist narrates Fortune, about the treasure-hunter, diver and scapegrace, Don Spargo, a character based on the ‘confrontational former navy diver named Alan Robinson’, whom Drewe had interviewed as a cadet in 1962 and met again in Sydney two decades later when Robinson was on bail for conspiracy to murder his ex-wife.

It was journalism that led Drewe to the subject and setting of his second novel, A Cry in the Jungle Bar (1979). As Drewe recalls in Montebello, Graham Perkin allowed ‘my first foray abroad: a travel freebie with Philippine Airlines to Manila that coincided with the election of Ferdinand Marcos’. From this newspaper assignment came the next of his self-selected assignments for fiction. The push of Australian novelists into Asian countries for their material (usually excepting Vietnam and the war that few mentioned) had begun with Christopher Koch in the 1960s. Drewe’s novel is bracketed by Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1978) and Blanche D’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach (1980), but is unlike them in not being much concerned with insecure Australians’ search for Asian moral and sexual mentors. Drewe’s protagonist, Richard Cullen, is a scientist, a specialist in ‘the poor man’s tractor’, the water buffalo. His frightening crack-up is registered as an expressionistic projection onto Asia of his own fears.

This job done, Drewe turned elsewhere, to a collection of short stories, The Bodysurfers.  As with The Savage Crows, his recollection of this book in Montebello is combative. Protection of his reputation is again involved. He declares that it ‘flew in the face of publishing lore that short stories didn’t sell and helped break a few shibboleths as well, including the accepted wisdom of the bush’s overwhelming primacy over the coast as an Australian literary backdrop.’ Drewe’s fiction and memoirs have encompassed the littoral on the western and eastern sides of the continent. In 1993, he edited The Picador Book of the Beach. Surfing, shark attacks, deaths by drowning – multiple, in many places and by various means – are more of the dominant motifs of his writing. ‘Stingray’, based on a painful event in his own life, was Drewe’s first published story. And while he was right to emphasise the counter-intuitive predominance of the bush over the beach – in fiction, and he might have added, in painting – there is other distinguished writing about the Indian Ocean coast: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers (1937), numerous works by Tim Winton and, most recently, Romy Ash’s Floundering (2012).

In Montebello, Drewe says that ‘I’d returned to the original backdrop of my writing – the Western Australian coast.’ He also confesses to what sounds like an extreme emotional condition: ‘I was probably an islomaniac.’ This admission allows for discursiveness – more youthful memories of Rottnest Island (‘where West Australians lost their virginity’, a circumstance he has mentioned more than once before), an analysis of the films made of Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, especially the Brando version, and musings on Australia as ‘this immense prison island’ that created ‘little satellite island prisons’. The trip to the Montebellos is to a place that has alarmed Drewe since he was nine years old and heard his mother’s fear at the atomic test: ‘Atom bombs worry the blazes out of me and I want you at home.’ The journalist in Drewe leads him to become informed of the health of such ‘Montebello bomb veterans’ as Pat Coverley and of their magazine Atomic Fallout. But it is an old, cold trail. Drewe’s journey to an archipelago that ‘appear[s] like a maze stuck in the middle of the ocean’ seems both dreamlike and desultory. There is not much to be found there any longer, and neither does he discover much about himself.

The main business of the book, if not all of its descriptive vividness, is found elsewhere, for instance in interpolated narratives: ‘The Harbour Story’, about the sad end of an affair, and the murder of Veronica Cullen by the church architect Ernest Rossen. Here are the seeds of novels that might have been. Drewe has always been entranced by the plenitude of story and his books often contain more of it than they can altogether manage. This formal problem, born of a generous imagination, he shares with Thomas Keneally. In Grace (2005), the titular heroine – a magazine film critic – flees a stalker and fetches up in the remote north of Western Australia. There she encounters an escapee from a desert detention camp. Indignantly she confronts an Australian shame, as Keneally did in The Tyrant’s Novel (2003) and Eva Sallis in The Marsh Birds (2005). But there is much else going on in Grace: a battle between academic anthropologists (one of them Grace’s father), the vignette of a corrupt ex-policeman who buys a desert motel, and the protective strategies of those who help refugees. Energetic and profuse, this novel shows Drewe trying to master his ambition and his anger.

In one of the episodes in Montebello, Drewe takes a trip back to Perth to visit the sites of  his boyhood and youth with his younger brother, Bill. Former homes are easy to locate, but not the grave, in the Karrakatta Cemetery, of their mother, Dorothy, who died when she was 47. Eventually a phone call to their sister Jan back east directs them where to go. The death of his mother is pivotal to the family romance at the heart of Drewe’s writing. It is approached both autobiographically and through a shadow fictional family, the Langs, who feature in a number of his works, particularly short stories. In each case, three generations are encompassed, with references back to ancestors on both sides of the family, such as the Drewe forebears from Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire, where The Drowner begins. Episodes, motifs, characters slide between fiction and autobiography – for instance the posthumous postcard that Drewe in fact (Max Lang in fiction) received from his father, five months after he died in ‘some dozy South Pacific port’ (as the story ‘Radiant Heat’ puts it). Montebello prints the text of the actual card: ‘Dear Son. Having an enjoyable time. It’s done me the world of good.’

In a good many of his short stories, Drewe practises not the ‘continuous line’ but the discontinuous, circling, repetitive style of narration most usually connected with his near contemporary but earlier starter in fiction, Frank Moorhouse. The Bodysurfers begins with ‘The Manageress and the Mirage’. On the occasion of the first Christmas after the death of their mother, Rex Lang takes his children Max (the narrator), David and Annie to a hotel for dinner. Mrs Lang has been given the same last words as Drewe’s mother: ‘your baked beans are on the stove’. Subsequent stories follow the children into adult life. In ‘Baby Oil’, Max is a fashion photographer involved in an affair; in ‘Looking for Malibu’, David is an architect on sabbatical in the United States with wife Angela and their three children, Paul, Helena and Tim. Annie has a bare-breasted silent cameo when she is spied upon in ‘The View from the Sandhills’. Both the Californian episode and the mother’s death recur in stories in The Bay of Contented Men. In fact and fiction, Drewe frequently resorts to the comic motif of ‘ex-King Peter of Yugoslavia’, whom Drewe – as head boy of Hale School – had to greet when the refugee royal found himself in Perth.

Comparisons with other Australian authors do not really fix Drewe. Indeed, a sense of his singularity is an essential part of the view of himself that is projected in Montebello. In two of his novels, in particular, he breaks free almost entirely of the matter of his family stories, if not of his research training as a journalist. This liberates his language from the terseness of his professional, journalistic language. These books are Our Sunshine and The Drowner. The first marks Drewe’s return to historical fiction. Although bolstered by research into the Kelly story, this is ‘a chronicle of my imagination’. It is a virtuoso, theatrical achievement. Finding a voice for Ned Kelly, as Peter Carey would in True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), Drewe shows Kelly performing before conscripted then unexpectedly enthusiastic audiences during the bank hold-up at Euroa and at Mrs Jones’s pub in Glenrowan. At the same time, he is performing for readers who find an old story become new again.

The prose of Our Sunshine is lusher, more exuberant than Drewe had ventured before. Reacting to the press branding as a ‘massacre’ the killing of three policemen at Stringybark Creek, Kelly prefers the word ‘battle’, for massacre ‘has the soft, crazy-moist, knife-blade sound, the stabbing, hacking, ruptured-vein sound.’ Anger at the press propels this alliterative flourish: ‘Well, police, papers, Protestants say so, pray for, scheme of, this propaganda.’

The Drowner, set a decade or so later, around the turn of the century, shows Drewe’s prose unshackled again. As young William Dance is ‘waking to the subdued murmurs of the Sabbath, the prim odours of soap, starch and scorch, his soul feels old and tired. His spirits plummet, stifled in a second by the idea of Sunday best.’ His father, ‘Alphabetical’ Dance, is a drowner, one who has ‘discovered how to govern water’. He is a creator of dewponds and water meadows. The son will become a hydraulic engineer, as the novel takes him – via Africa and entanglement with the actress Angelica Lloyd – to the building of the water pipeline to the goldfields at Kalgoorlie.

The novel has numerous instances, direct and reported, of drowning, usually as the quiet, lonely and invisible taking away of another person. One of the most used of Drewe’s motifs, drowning is also a metaphor for his intuition of what in the human, and particularly the male, condition is most vital. What prompts his deepest reflections is the plight of men who might go under, men from whom the sustaining force of personal and professional structures – such as parents, marriage and career – have been removed. It is in this solitary if not yet desperate state that Drewe portrays himself at the beginning of Montebello. This is the central image in Drewe’s self-fashioning. It is also the outlawed Kelly’s condition. He does not even comfort himself with the notion of a gang: ‘we got stuck with each other at the killings and had quickly to get organised.’ The melancholy, if often fruitful position of a number of Drewe’s protagonists is to find themselves in company, but essentially alone. Each of them is on assignment. This is how we last see the character Stephen Crisp – on a Bass Strait island in The Savage Crows – and last see the author Robert Drewe, as a voluntary castaway in the Montebellos.


Candida Baker, Yacker 2: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (Picador, 1989)
Bruce Bennett, ‘Literature and Journalism: The Fiction of Robert Drewe,’ Ariel (20:3, 1989)
David Conley, ‘Birth of a novelist, death of a journalist,’ Australian Studies in Journalism (No.7. 1998)