I stumbled upon Kenneth Cook’s masterpiece two days ago while killing time before a meeting, waltzing about in a Barangaroo bookshop I never knew existed. There she was hey. The 1961 published novel(la) that spawned the greatest Aussie film we may ever produce. Well, a Canadian directed it, a Pom nailed the starring role, and seems most all my fellow countrymen despised the tale for nigh on 4 decades. Ah well, stuff ‘em! Like all things good and holy, the film has stood the test of time and my countrymen have come around to it eventually. You beauty. And turn ‘er over, $12.95!? Bargain!! Why are the best things in life always so cheap?
The story of John Grant; a pretentious city slicker posted to the outback to earn back his teaching bond; a slave to the system, chained to an arid hellhole he can’t wait to escape with 28 kids clogging up 22 desks; a bright, young man armed with one almighty flaw…grog. I tore through it, my only option when a book is flawless, but it’s beyond flawless, it’s a work grounded in what I treasure most - grit, thirst, blind luck, harsh truth, bitter self-loathing thanks to enlightened self-awareness, what it truly means to be an Australian bloke. Kenneth Cook, I salute you.
Against the Australian literary backdrop of dropkicks - Winton, FitzSimons, Gregory David Roberts et al - a slew of overvalued, overhyped pretenders who pride themselves on spewing out bloated, unreadable crap, there in the corner stands a sweat-laced Kenneth Cook, the chosen one who knows there’s only one rule of sublime storytelling…never bore the reader! That’s it, all you need to know, the secret, the key, the beginning, the end, the crucial factor absent in the majority of garbage that win literary awards and race to the top of bestseller lists based on expensive PR, publishing house spiv and the everlasting fact that most people will buy a book based on an author’s carefully manicured reputation rather than a story’s ability to stand on its own two legs. Go figure.
As an Aussie writer, and a lover of story, my hope is that every writer worth a damn use Wake in Fright as a template of perfection. Anything less, piss off! Punchy, pacey, every line chocker block with action, grief, hope, despair, and the biting black humour we love above all. You won’t find yourself re-reading lines to work out what the hell the writer’s bungin’ on about, a Winton trademark , no, you’ll re-read lines simply to marvel at the power of language, the ability to weave a turn of phrase into a racing leap forward in story, and to do so with breakneck speed, efficiency and humour. You’ll re-read lines because you need to take a breath! This is how it’s done. This is a master craftsman on the tools. This is everything a book is meant to be, 200 pages you’ll knock over in a single sitting and find yourself in need of an ice-cold Vic at the end of it all. Cool your jets, soothe your gullet, reflect on what on earth just happened and reach down into the esky for another.
I won’t spoil the story or talk up its author anymore. You’re wasting time! Go read Wake in Fright now! Experience for yourself what is truly possible on the page when a master’s at the helm.
May you dream of the Devil and wake in fright.
*Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery, a story about capitalism on steroids in the oil trading world of Southeast Asia. His second novel, Sweet Dreams of Fanta, is a sentimental ride back to the Sydney of 1988, seen through the eyes of a freckly, moon-faced, 7year old Fanta addict. And his third book, Hooroo Love, is in the works now.