Perth Festival Writers Week

Tim Winton: Tender Hearts, Sons of Brutes

Review: Elizabeth Lewis

It’s a sold out show and energetic chatter sweeps the Octagon Theatre on February 24th. The lights dim and a hush you wouldn’t expect from an Aussie crowd at a festival event descends.

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Tim Winton. Photo Denise Winton

Juicy licks of steel-string blues guitar evoke a wide, uneasy landscape and set the tone for the evening. The lights come up. A man in jeans, t-shirt and trademark long surfers’ hair ambles onto the stage and begins to read in a familiar Australian brogue. Tim Winton has arrived.

“The smell of petrol beats the stink of blood any day”.

Tim Winton is reading to us from his latest novel The Shepherd’s Hut and it is a treat to hear words that haven’t yet been released for general consumption. Readings are interspersed with powerful photographs of landscape, regional towns and people by Brad Rimmer, Lynn Webb and Ingvar Kenne. The slick production is titled Tender Hearts, Sons of Brutes and is showing for the first time at Perth Writers Week before travelling to Byron, Sydney and other Australian Writers’ Festivals.

After an introductory segment from the book Winton starts to ruminate on the purposes of a novel.

“A novel isn’t a tool, it’s a toy…a tool is something you use with intent and after its purpose is just something to trip over and curse at, if you’re anything like me…there’s great energy embedded in a toy, it can become an obsession.”

Whether a tool or a toy seems irrelevant; as the story continues Winton seems both at the mercy of the muse and also intent on conveying the social issues that concern him. The subtitle of this presentation is ‘Tim Winton on lost boys and toxic masculinity’. Winton has set his sights on outing what he calls “an inherited culture of misogyny and racism” that is both accepted and ignored in Australia and the rest of the world. He is passionate and persuasive.

“The novelist has to make beauty out of squalor and suffering. If there’s no trouble, there’s no story…I ended up with this grotty, foul-mouthed, racist urchin who’s fifty shades of wrong… I went back to my unlovely boy and I gave him the floor…a boy so marinated in violence it’s like a virus that’s taken over his body…He was born wild but that doesn’t explain his savagery, he’s been taught savagery”.

Tim Winton doesn’t pick a cause without thinking it through. In between capturing the audience with tasters from the book he entreats against the daily terror of male violence, domestic violence and “the wearisome calculations women have to make to proceed through their ordinary lives”.

His cause is not one-sided however. Winton expresses a deep tenderness and concern for boys and young men bereft of emotionally mature role models:

“Young men are so routinely encouraged to denounce the best of themselves and submit to something mean… When you’re bred for mastery, how do you find your way in a world that can’t be mastered?”

The protagonist in The Shepherd’s Hut is Jaxie Clackton, a young man schooled in a culture of brute-force and the rejection of empathy, who finds himself on a solitary journey through the salt pans and scrub of the outback. The Shepherd’s Hut explores whether a boy raised in a violent household can ever be liberated from his learned tendencies. Will each of his subsequent relationships be at risk?

Winton’s concern for men in regional Australia is expressed with poetic metaphor:

“Since the sixties we have clear-felled and burned our traditional rites of passage. But I’m not sure what we’ve replaced them with. We have a poverty of rituals. The salt is rising to the surface of our own desolate wheatbelt”.

The Shepherd’s Hut explores this desolation of the male spirit. We aren’t told which way Jaxie’s story will go but Winton hints at what the reader can do.

“What a mystery a boy is, especially to a grown man, and how easy to forget what beautiful creatures they are… The first step is to notice them, to make them worthy of our interest…to help them become nurturers and lovers of peace, for their own sakes, for all our sakes.”

The shephers hut.JPGWinton finishes with bittersweet humour, laughing, “I don’t do themes” and the crowd laughs along with him, a friendly eye-roll. Broken masculinity, glimpses of redemption through kindness and how the things that happen when we’re young echo in our adult lives for better or worse are recurring narratives from Dirt Music, The Turning, Breath and Eyrie. They have all been leading to The Shepherd’s Hut.

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton is available in bookstores from today.