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Critical Essay by Kerin Cantrell
SOURCE: "Perspectives on Thomas Keneally," in Southerly, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1968, pp. 54-67.
In the following essay, Cantrell traces the development of Keneally's novels through Bring Larks and Heroes.
Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney in 1935. He has written two plays and three novels, and though his work has usually been favorably received, it is only with his latest novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), that he has suddenly been acclaimed as the author of the "long-sought Great Australian Novel". His first book, The Place at Whitton (1964), Mr. Keneally is reported as having "intended … as a pure thriller but (he) feels now that the book couldn't make up its mind what to be". It reveals the interest in Catholicism that is to persist in the later novels (Mr. Keneally studied for the priesthood to within months of taking orders) and it seems not unfair to suggest that in The Place at Whitton the author is partly reviewing his own attitudes to the priesthood. The perspective is a critical one. The vocation of priesthood is seen as attracting a fair proportion of psychically disordered personalities, and though this is not a profound insight it is well conveyed. Mr. Keneally creates with skill the smoothly functioning administration of seminary life, beneath which is concealed a host of doubts and frustrations.
Singled out for particular attention are the exceptional candidates for the priesthood, such as the visionary Verissimo and the homicidal Pontifex. But because Mr. Keneally seems, in all his works, more interested in men in a social situation than in the men themselves, none of his analyses is characterized by particular insight. The author has a conception of character as being simply anchored in social and environmental determinants, as with the priest Buchanan, who is said to suffer from a fear of thirst because he witnessed in his youth the grotesque antics of an alcoholic uncle. Moreover, the action tends to bog down a little in the "case histories" of the priests which are related one after the other (see particularly chapters 8 and 9).
Yet, as the author seems now to concede, the novel lacks direction. It tends on the one hand towards the "whodunit", and on the other towards the probing of the priestly psyche. Not that these elements are essentially incompatible in the one work; it is simply that the "whodunit" elements lack the conviction that informs the rest of the novel. Mr. Keneally establishes a link between the two tendencies by making the priest-murderer at Whitton the mauvais-prêtre necessary to the completion of the rites of a sophisticated young witch, Agnes. Except for the concluding thirty pages, the depiction of the witch's King's Cross world is contrived and mundane, and the author finally betrays his own lack of assurance by mocking it. Hence the uncertainty of the scene in which Agnes and her witch associates are celebrating, in Grecian costume, the initiation into their circle of the lawyer Townsend:
"Mark him!" a Greek chorus chanted. "Mark him!"
The iron was ready, blazing in his sight. It wavered before him, its two red prongs quavering with heat. Then it sped forward and bit the flesh of his forehead. Like some type of leech, it sucked and mouthed the flesh away.
"Augh!" Townsend yelled.
Mr. Keneally shows a tendency to graft his personal dislikes on to his material. This results in some trite commentary and in stereotyped characterization, observable in the treatment of the lawyer Townsend, of Agnes, and the policeman Ptolemy, who is in charge of investigations of the murder at Whitton. The following account is that of the typical "mug cop":
"Well, I'm not used to violent death," [the priest] Cyril said. It was a quiet statement of neutral tone, but Ptolemy felt it as an assault on his authority.
"If you're not, Father," he said hotly, not caring if Cyril deserved the title or not, and happier if he didn't, "if you're not used to violent death, I am. I mightn't be a clergyman, I mightn't be a believer of any description, but unlike a centipede beneath a rock, I deserve human respect. Whatever you may think, a policeman is not lower than a grub. He's a poor coot whom all despise yet all fly to. Everyone suspects him of bribery and corruption, but he's the bloke who arrests the homicidal maniac who's got everyone scared."
This is prentice-work caricature, as is the following out-of-keeping outburst of Verissimo's "vision woman", Joan of Arc. The visionary Verissimo expresses dissatisfaction with the poor food and accommodation at the seminary. Joan tartly delivers a homily:
"Hah," said Joan. "But the people who eat well and sleep warm aren't happy. They live a shadow life. They imitate happiness. They travel parallel to it and go through all its functions. Yet somewhere, in a moment of passion or deceit, they lost the way or the key or whatever you want to call it."
The author also airs his irritation with the Australian absorption in football, and with the standard of reading matter to be found in a physician's waiting room. Fortunately this tendency to swipe at easy targets is not evident in his later works, although Bring Larks and Heroes suffers a little from unshaped detail and from the same inability to handle women as was evident in the treatment of Agnes.
But if The Place at Whitton reveals Mr. Keneally's weaknesses it also indicates his strengths. Mr. Keneally's mastery lies in the depiction of men in social situations, and in descriptions of physical rather than mental landscapes. The old seminary at Whitton is fondly described:
The main doors of the place at Whitton were … archaic and bulky, held on by large iron hinges as long as a bayonet. A glossy electric button near the right-hand handle gave them a surprised look—like that of a dignitary discovered with his navel showing.
And Mr. Keneally's interest in language (more evident in Bring Larks and Heroes) shows itself in his aptitude for happy images: "the three of them waded across fields crumbling like wet biscuit."
Mr. Keneally displays in all his work a marked talent for the macabre incident. The notable instance in The Place at Whitton is the splendid burial alive with which the novel concludes. Pontifex finds another victim in Agnes. He drives a stake straight through her, and with this stake secures her in a shallow grave which he then calmly proceeds to fill in. Surprisingly enough, the force of this conclusion is not at all diminished by the very clumsy incidents which immediately precede it. It would seem that the author came to realize toward the end of the novel that the negative emphasis laid on the place at Whitton (which is hardly shown as a fruitful, life-giving institution), needed a positive counterpart.
First there is the brief anecdote of Whitton's Ghost, the ghost of a member of the seminary who died shortly before ordination, and whose abortive career speaks for the achievement of several of the inmates under scrutiny. Then on … we are introduced to two characters who will correct this impression. The local schoolteacher, Dawes, is pursuing a "bloody virgin queen" named Colette. The tedium of their days is mapped out at a length much too considerable for their importance to the plot, which lies in their meeting with Agnes and Pontifex on a deserted beach. Dawes has persuaded the timid Colette to accompany him on a day's fishing, while Pontifex, having fled Whitton after another attempt at murder, is using the beach as a hideout at Agnes's suggestion. The two couples meet on the beach, and to Dawes, Pontifex appears as a sort of father-figure. Possibly Dawes also experienced a sudden desire to be alone with Agnes for a while; his instinct urges him to leave Pontifex and Colette together. Pontifex quickly takes an interest in Colette and draws from her the fears she harbors about marriage. Pontifex points out Dawes's loneliness and urges that though marriage is a lottery, "in a world of rotten motives and twisted passions, you have to give everything into someone else's keeping. If you survive the giving, you come to flower. That's the odds." Pontifex's words hit home, for three pages later we are told that
in some way the talk and the companionship of the day had made the world whole for (Collette). For the first time, she was overtaken by a starting emotion of trust, trust for Dawes.
As Colette's morbid fear of all males has been so insisted on, this sudden conversion is hardly convincing. The author's fault lies in failing to show his character in a depth sufficient for the reader to be able to accept such a change. I believe Mr. Keneally repeats this error in the concluding pages of Bring Larks and Heroes.
The point of the Colette-Dawes episode is to adjust a balance, to point out that no man, not even a multiple-murdering candidate for the priesthood, is wholly bad. The point is trite, and tritely made. Nor does Mr. Keneally manage to bring Colette and Dawes alive, to make of them anything more than the "two lukewarm personalities" he has himself dubbed them.
The second novel, The Fear (1965), does not mark such a development on The Place at Whitton as does Bring Larks and Heroes on both the earlier works. The measure of the achievement in Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) may perhaps be taken by a single instance. In this novel and in The Place at Whitton, the author portrays the impulse to barbarity, barely under the surface, that can take a man by surprise. In Whitton, the explanation of this impulse is long and repetitive (see chapters 8 and 22). The rendering of the similar impulse in Bring Larks and Heroes is far more precise and forceful.
In the latter work, Mr. Keneally heightens tension by dramatizing not only this impulse to let blood, but also a conflict of loyalties. Captain Allen is in charge of a disciplinary attack, by conscripted Irish troops, on insurgent Irish transports. The bitterness of the brother-against-brother situation has already been insisted on, particularly in the affair between Corporal Halloran and the Irish felon Quinn. Halloran now avoids attacking his kin by merely pretending to strike the insurgents, but Halloran's mate, Terry Byrne, is paralyzed by the prospect of attacking fellow Irishmen. Captain Allen tries to force the petrified Byrne to take action:
The (battle) was nearly over now, except that a little way uphill and across the narrow valley, low comedy was in progress, as Allen chased Byrne who chased a felon. It was like a play, like a bad play, the way Halloran heard it later and over and over from Byrne. Byrne sprinting, the Irishman falling on his knees constantly saying. "In the name of God!" And like a farce figure was Allen, striking the turf with his sword three times, roaring "Kill him!"
Byrne gaped because he knew he would bayonet this angular young man yelling, "In the name of God!" There seemed no good reason to desist. Byrne saw him fully enough to know that he was brother-man and that the bayonet would viper him, craggy as he was, with a small head and curls close down on his forehead. When he rose and broke away again, Allen tried to get him by these curls and hack him with the sword. But he was away, and for some seconds, Allen and Byrne stood still, as if the matter was solved. Allen realized first that it hadn't been solved at all. He changed his sword to his left hand and struck Byrne across the jaw. The yellow blindness all but put an end to the affair for Byrne and for the Irishman, and even for Allen. Because Byrne made off uphill in quite frenzied style and found the boy trying to hide in under the limbs of a native fig fairly spacious and concealing in the dark. Byrne was thinking, I'm only doing soldier's work, yet he was bitter against himself, thinking also how if you're no good in the first place, you'll be no good in the melting pot, in the furnace, in the womb of wild events. He ducked under the branches and walked to the young fellow. "Jesus, Mary, Joseph," said the young fellow, louder and louder the closer Byrne got. The Holy Family couldn't do the job tonight, Byrne thought. They depended on him, and he had no mercy. The bayonet gestured softly at the boy, who turned his back and took it in the buttocks. He began a whining, too, that cringed on a rising note, back into the mousiest corners of sound. The iron went into his belly, high up because he was rolling; and he was so close to death then that, under the double bark of the fig, his breath sounded more like a felled bird than like true breath. Byrne was enthralled by the barbarous fluidity of his bayonet going in. He actually felt for the man's softer parts with his boot and spiked him a last time.
There is a grim comedy of the grotesque operating here, which adds to the macabreness of the situation where terror becomes a fascination with the act of killing. The sexual overtones of the final few lines deliberately recall that other, persistent Byrne, the Byrne who commits sodomy and makes bawdy jests about Halloran's "secret bride".
This is Keneally at his best, but it is a best that is not always sustained. The profundities which reviewers have detected in Bring Larks and Heroes may be due in part to a confusion within the work itself, although there does seem to be an attempt in the novel to probe issues which have a pertinency beyond it, as it were. Some confusion arises from the author's tendency to introduce ideas that are given too large an airing for their effect in the work as a whole. Mr. Keneally's speculations tend to run away with him at times.
There is for instance the long description of books dealing with the ethics of suicide in The Place at Whitton, or the debates, in Bring Larks and Heroes, on the propriety of a marriage that is consecrated only by the mutual exchange of vows between partners, owing to the absence of a priest. In presenting Halloran's introspections about the ethics of his "secret marriage", Mr. Keneally shapes his material to show that there is a discernible direction in Halloran's thought. Halloran has a concern with truth and propriety, but tends to romanticize issues and always remains a little perplexed. But the emphasis placed in the first thirty pages on the ethics of Halloran's situation is a repetitive rather than an intensifying device. The situation is not used to probe deeper into Halloran's mind.
In a sense, the author cannot probe deeply, for Halloran is shown to be a fairly limited person, whose perceptions are never impressive. His naive idealism is pointed to time and again: he has, for instance, an idea as to what constitutes the "artistic type". When he is rowing upstream with the artist Ewers, Halloran observes
the artist's gaze … (which) could have taken in two raw damned little men with sweat in their sternums and hairy navels and nubbly feet gripping the foothold either side of his boots. Halloran, who had seen some of the flabbergasting but redeemed ugliness in Leonardo's sketch-book, tended to expect that these two would delight an artist, send him grabbing for his transforming charcoal.
The boat is beached, and Halloran asks Ewers if he feels moved (as Halloran expects he ought), to paint the landscape. Ewers replies in the negative; a picture, he says, would give a false impression of this harsh country:
"If I painted this landscape," Ewers explained, "those who ever saw it would think that the forests behind the beaches were teeming with fruit and game. They would think that this river led to a kingly town, that Eden lay at the headwaters."
Eden lay at the head-waters was such a nice phrase that Halloran suspected he was listening to a recitation, perhaps part of the artist's private journal.
There is also the instance where Halloran brutally kicks the queer soldier, Miles. This is a seemingly motiveless attack, and most probably springs from the fact of Miles's homosexuality. Immediately prior to the kicking, Halloran had been obliged to settle a lovers' quarrel between Miles and his regular friend, a quarrel sparked off by Byrne's interference.
Finally there is the presentation of Halloran in his disputes with Hearn, the gentleman felon who likens himself to the Savior—"like one greater, I had wounds to show" he grandly announces. Hearn challenges Halloran's conscience on matters of loyalty to God and King. He hopes to prove Halloran's allegiances groundless and so persuade him to join in an escape to Europe, where the 1789 uprising has occurred. Halloran's allegiances are shaken but not destroyed, and in the altercations his wit is seen as inferior to Hearn's. Halioran adopts therefore a pompous defense, only to have it crumpled by Byrne, who has been won over by Hearn's zeal and who suddenly announces, "'Your nose is starting to run.' It made Halloran furious to have his nose so thoroughly betray his mortality. He became noticeably taut." There is a similar debunking effect soon after, when Halioran "tried to look ironic, but a sneeze scattered his efforts."
Halloran is certainly more sensitive than his fellows, but it is his essential ordinariness that is stressed. It is necessary to insist on this since some reviewers see Halloran as a sort of Christ-figure, and such a reading ignores the qualifications that events and Mr. Keneally place on him. One reviewer remarks for instance that
Halloran looks towards an agony which will not only be his but will also be a summation of the violence which the despised and rejected must suffer at the hands of those who sit in the high places of this earth in all times and places. His suffering is representative, as Christ's was, because it is so intense, so lonely and he is so conscious of it, as a process, a path to be walked, a grave ceremony (sic). Impressive in this sort of rumination is the tight holding to, the stoic guarding, the refusal to spare one's self an atom of the knowledge of what will be. The refusal to cry out is the more impressive in the light of the fact that Halloran not only is a good man, but he is to suffer all this as the direct result of his actions as a good man.
The main justification for such a reading seems to me to rest on the novel's final lines. As the gallows-rope breaks Halloran's neck he asks himself "Am I perhaps God?" Most clearly he is not, but the effect of the remark is uncertain. Possibly Mr. Keneally is attempting to enhance the importance of his protagonist's suffering, and the remark is to be read without ironic implication. Though I doubt this, Halloran's final perception remains unconvincing, for he has been shown to be limited in perception, with neither exceptional ruminative power nor spiritual status. Further, he is an essentially humble person. For his remark to strike the reader as convincing, the author would have needed to show Halloran's capacity for life as being enlarged by what he undergoes. Mr. Keneally does not show any such development, hence the change in Halloran is too sudden and the remark fails to convince.
Another reading seems more plausible, which is that this is the final irony in the career of Halloran, a man who "has the illusion of knowing where he's going", as the novel very early announces. Halloran married Ann "to ward off oblivion", yet both meet an early death. Further, Halloran fails every person who looks to him for help, and it is his own nature which contributes to such failures, as well as the circumstances of his existence. Halloran realizes this, and Hearn's hold over Halloran is possible only because he strikes Halloran on a vulnerable point. Might not Halloran have done something for the luckless Ewers, who is accused of and hanged for rape, and who Halloran knows to be a eunuch? The confusion in Halloran's notions that the debates with Hearn bring out, indicate that this final notion, "Am I perhaps God?", may be the most misguided of all.
The reading I am advancing receives further support from the parallel drawn between Halloran and the Reverend Calverly. These two are early associated: "only (Calverly) and Halloran, perhaps, in that whole town, did not resent the grotesque land, did not call it evil because it was weird." Both come to rejoice in the mercy of death, both experience mental and physical suffering. Most pertinently, both fail those who depend on them for relief. Calverly's sermonizing in the cell where Halloran awaits the gallows with two other soldiers brings down on him a volley of abuse and mockery, while Halloran's failure in respect of Quinn brings that Irishman's bitter curses raining on his head.
Such speculation may however distort the main emphasis of the novel, which is essentially concerned with the penal system, rather than with a stroke-by-stroke analysis of a single character. Mr. Keneally continues the line of Australian novels of the convict system, and there are a couple of stylistic touches that recall Hal Porter, though he and Keneally are literary stylists of a very different kind. In The Tilted Cross, Porter was primarily concerned with the effect of the penal system on the individual, but Mr. Keneally does not primarily use the "system" to make an exploratory study of human experience. Emphasis throughout is on the system, and it is in depictions of men in a community, and in rendering physical rather than mental landscapes, that Mr. Keneally excels. Ultimately, the "system" is more memorable than the persons that comprise it; the physical world by which Halloran lives is more strongly imagined than his inner experience.
The brutality and decay (of justice) in the settlement are touched in lightly at several points. Government House is described thus:
At the top of the town stood a Government House whose thatch roof was being replaced by shingles of blackbutt. Transports moved in and out and about the hole in its distant roof with the effective indolence of maggots in a skull.
Or the measure of the expectations of the colony's inhabitants is taken by the incident in which the artist Ewers has his hand painfully slashed by a caged bird for which he is attempting to provide some shade. And always there is the landscape, its stunted growth providing a physical counterpart for the failure of hopes and ideals. The sense that Mr. Keneally conveys of the dreadful inevitableness of events is created partly by pertinent detail in the landscape. Ann and Halloran spend their precious half day a week together, near the sea. They waded through
a matting of shrubs stripped and cuffed westward by the prevailing wind. Once the green shoals could be seen under the cliff, he sat Ann down on a hump of granite. The cliff-top was sown with partly revealed clods of the rock and was not unlike a half-buried grave-yard, with the names and scraps of remembrance having wasted into the crystals of the stones.
Small touches such as this prepare for harsher brutalities, such as the description of the back of a youth flogged three-quarters to death. There is "a seam in the boy's purple back and a herd of flies, whose bite is maggots, drinking from it".
Keneally is a master at rendering the manner in which men will use one another to work off frustration. Twice, felons are flogged in the capacity of scapegoats for an officer who wishes to thwart a superior and relieve irritation: Rowley's flogging of Quinn, and Captain Howard's of Hearn, follow this pattern.
One of the novel's most interesting situations is that between Ann and Mrs. Blythe, mistress of the house in which Ann serves as kitchenmaid. Ulcerated Mrs. Blythe is the possessor of a "pious gut" which her husband is endeavoring to crack by starvation. She also possesses a curious concern for her servant's chastity, and her ostensible reason, that she does not wish to see Ann fat with Halloran's bastard, hardly suffices in the face of the elation she experiences when Ann is executed. Mrs. Blythe identifies directly with Ann when she discovers that the latter is no longer a virgin ([she knew] "that Halloran had involved her in the Fall"), and on the occasion of Ann's death, experiences a sudden surge of energy. She rises awkwardly and performs on ulcerated legs a grotesque sort of can-can.
This morbid relationship is highlighted to excellent effect in the novel's stage version, Halloran's Little Boat (reappearing at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, at the time of writing). The play also brings out the tendency to disintegration of structure which results from too free speculation, speculation which is not closely rooted in the work. Ann's resentful doubts about the existence of God in such a country as this, and her exchanges with Halloran about the "secret bride" ethic, with which most of Act One is concerned, have slipped from the memory by the time of the final act which is dominated by the much more arresting Mr. and Mrs. Blythe. To adjust this balance, Mr. Keneally has curiously romanticized the play's finale by bringing back on stage the executed Ann and Halloran, who confirm, in heavenly trappings, their eternal happiness.
I wish to comment only briefly on The Fear (1965). "Joseph, the boy caught up in the battle between Catholic and Communist, and in an escape in Australia of Japanese prisoners of World War II, is brought face to face with evil in the clear Australian sunlight". Thus incorrectly and misleadingly reads the publisher's blurb on the back of the recent Sun Books edition. It is not Joseph but Daniel who confronts the Japanese, and further, the novel is not concerned with any "battle between Catholic and Communist". The Fear is instead more of an autobiography, being partly based on incidents from Mr. Keneally's youth.
The eight-year-old Catholic boy, Daniel Jordan, is both protagonist and part narrator of this novel; the other narrative voice is that of the mature Daniel Jordan. Neighbors to the Jordans are a Communist family, the Mantles, and it is Mr. Mantle, "the Comrade", who is the source of the fear that Daniel experiences. Daniel becomes entwined in the Mantles' affairs and the upshot is a tragedy resulting in the death of two of Daniel's friends. The Comrade brings home and enthrones on a dresser in the dining room, a grenade which he threatens, in his more belligerent moods, to explode in the house. Daniel, the Mantles' two sons and Dolph Conlon steal the grenade and explode it early one morning at a rubbish tip. This results in the deaths of Len Mantle and Dolph Conlon, and shortly afterwards Mrs. Mantle commits suicide and takes with her the crippled son Joseph. The Jordan family then moves to the Cape, where, after an interval of some months, the Comrade reappears, having fled his former surroundings and the rumors of his responsibility for the deaths of the two lads and of his wife and elder son. Daniel and the Comrade are among those involved as hostages in an escape of Japanese prisoners-of-war. This incident costs the Comrade his life, and Daniel expresses relief at a feeling of release that the Comrade's death effects in him.
The mass of events is given very little shape beyond the arrangement of a chronological sequence. Mr. Keneally has drawn some parallels in the two situations in which Daniel finds himself (i.e. in the incidents prior to and following the move to the Cape). At the Cape Daniel becomes the third member of a group which, prior to his arrival, was an established twosome, and this recalls his association with the Mantle boys. The drinking and whoring Comrade has his Cape counterpart in the alcoholic schoolteacher, John Oakley, who professes a platonic love for Daniel's mother and who has to be warned away from the Jordan's home in much the same manner as the Comrade's whore had to be ordered off the Jordan premises previously.
I cannot believe, however, that Mr. Keneally intends any serious comment on Communists, or Catholics, in this novel. The portrait of Mr. Mantle is true to the stereotype of the whoring, wife-beating drunkard, who confides in those much younger than himself in order to gain the esteem denied him by his peers. But there are some indications that we are meant to take events as pointing to certain truths, as for instance the desire of the Comrade's crippled son, Joseph, to be baptized. Daniel's talk of the Catholic faith arouses in Joseph a desire for salvation, despite the Comrade's instruction to the contrary. The childish prattle on this issue becomes tedious, and I fail to see why it is included unless to suggest that the rigors of Communist doctrine, as exemplified by Mr. Mantle, cannot overcome a fundamental human desire for assurance of some sort of after-life.
The events of the novel are registered through the eyes of Daniel, and the mode of narration is a little disturbing, as Mr. Keneally freely interchanges the idiom appropriate to an eight-year-old ([Stell] "was mad with me," my italics), with that appropriate to the more reflective adult: "the Mantles' narrow little brick place … seemed to be subsiding crookedly into the earth like an ill laid tombstone". This is a pertinent comparison since the Mantles' son Joseph is dying of a disease that is turning his neuro-muscular system to jelly.
Mr. Keneally has not chosen to show the development of the protagonist-narrator. He is content to evoke the world of childhood for its own sake, though some adverse light cannot but be shed on Daniel at certain points. Mr. Keneally is in none of his works at his most assured when handling character development; he cannot extend a character in depth, in order to trace a change in attitude or an increasing capacity for experiencing life to the full. Since in The Fear hardly any development in character is sustained, the incidents tend to become a catalogue with no reflective narrator to focus their influence on the developing child. Daniel remains of ordinary perception, basically unaffected by the events he experiences.
Hence when Daniel expresses "a feeling of grief" that the Comrade is dead and that he, Daniel, is now without the Comrade's "peculiar brand of menace", it is a matter of statement rather than of demonstration, for there is very little of menace in anything that happens to Daniel. It is perhaps as a consequence of registering everything through the eyes of a not very outstanding eight-year-old, that the whole novel takes on the tone of a schoolboy adventure story. The incidents themselves are grim enough, but the manner of narration reduces them to extended escapade.
Although the Comrade is responsible for four deaths, he remains a somewhat pathetic figure who disturbs Daniel's consciousness (and conscience) only when the latter is visibly reminded of the Comrade's existence. Though there is an occasional touch of irony in the author's treatment of Daniel, the latter's perceptions are on the whole endorsed. There is nothing comparable in The Fear to the pervading irony which attends the depiction of the protagonist in Bring Larks and Heroes.
The Fear remains then, the relating of a period of childhood, a period tinged, for the protagonist, with some unease, but more predominantly with much of the color of high adventure. The prose fiction breaks down at times into mere reportage, particularly in the account of the Japanese prisoners' escape. The apology to the reader that "one thing that you'll no doubt say of this random coverage of ten months of childhood is that it's shambling," is certainly warranted. However the novel shows, in small incidents and touches, the mastery of the author of Bring Larks and Heroes. The actual throwing of the hand-grenade is particularly well described, as is the account of the traveling country pastor's congregation:
In Gilbert, Father Mullally was said to be a deep man, which meant that no one understood his sermons. That morning he spoke of John Calvin and free will. A comatose generation slumped on the benches before him, one ear open for his cadences. They did not know John Calvin. There was no resentment against the man when the priest named him as the greatest enemy of the sovereign soul of man. Their eyes did not turn blazing with pity to inspect the millions of shackled souls lined up century by century—according to the preacher's gesture—between the tea urns at the back of the hall. The massive self-dialogue rolled on and over our heads, intimidated the terribly ordinary fibro walls. And the people seemed content, as did the priest himself.
Suddenly we could hear the Gilbert-Cape bus grinding over Warialda with the day's picnickers. The priest brought the sermon to a close by unleashing on it a sign of the Cross which was like three or four smart judo chops. He couldn't have our Protestant brethren hanging around the surf shed slaking their Protestant curiosity or getting good Catholic dogma without putting anything in the plate.
The Fear evokes as distinctly an Australian landscape as that in Bring Larks and Heroes, and in all three novels the sea plays an important part, as a symbol of refuge and release. The claims made by reviewers for The Fear (such as "the fascination that Keneally holds for Australian readers lies in his deep sense of tragedy and the cold proximity of sin, death and darkness"), were premature, and are more applicable to Bring Larks and Heroes, which contains the author's most perceptive writing to date.
This article has been an attempt to refocus Mr. Keneally's reputation, in the face of too extreme a critical reception. Although there is a frequent lack of assurance about his work, with Bring Larks and Heroes Mr. Keneally shows himself a novelist of distinction.
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