Richard accused me the other day of being a little hard to pin down sometimes, regarding my straight-up opinion of a book. Did I like it? Did I not? Ah well. Such is the danger of the anti-review form practiced here at Evening All Afternoon. And sad to say, I'm afraid my thoughts on Tim Winton's Cloudstreet will not exactly help my reputation in this regard. There are so many things to love in this grittily atmospheric family saga of working-class life in Western Australia: gorgeous, chewy prose and rich dialogue; compelling characters (both male and female) that made me cringe more than they made me hope, but still made me hope enough to keep me reading; a refreshingly honest depiction of sex and its role in human relationships; and intriguing questions about the relationship between luck, religion, and chance. It also featured a few elements that took my opinion down a few pegs, including a distracting magical-realist streak that felt tacked on as a concession to the literary fads of the early 1990s.
Cloudstreet is the story of two working-class families in and around Perth, Western Australia, in the period from late World War II to the early 1960s. The Pickles clan, headed by the infuriating yet charismatic gambling addict Sam and the alcoholic sex kitten Dolly, also includes their daughter Rose and her two brothers. The once God-fearing Lamb family (hard-nosed Oriel, good-natured Lester and their seven kids) lose their religious faith after a calamity befalls their favorite son Fish: caught in a fishing net, he is dragged under the water and nearly drowned, to be brain-damaged upon resuscitation. Events bring the two families together into a single, ramshackle house on Cloud Street, where the Pickles cuss and brawl, the Lambs open a shop and supply fruit and veg to the neighborhood, and the two clans weather twenty years, mostly apart (despite their proximity) but occasionally together. Between the Lambs and the Pickleses, the reader is torn between a faith in God that has been lost but is still mourned; a faith in Lady Luck that is never abandoned despite ample reason; and a question in the minds of many characters about whether blind chance rules their lives. Meanwhile the house, a character in its own right, is vaguely sinister (in fact haunted) for most of the time they're living in it, yet it somehow manages to become "home."
I think the thing that succeeds in keeping Cloudstreet so grounded, despite the incidentally haunted house and other supernatural elements (on which more later), is the visceral quality of Winton's prose, which is flexible and earthy and which I unreservedly loved. I've been sitting here flipping through my copy, and there are so many beautiful passages that it's difficult to choose what to share with you. Sometimes it's rich and literary, with a great ear for rhythm:
Down at Crawley there were lights out on the river and through the boozing parties of prawners with their whingeing kids and boiling drums of water to where the grass ended and the peppermints gripped the bank above the sand and the thick stewy smell of the river was strong and plain in his face.
Other times, as in this fantastic chapter of dialogue, Winton gives us the verbal play of his characters (an adult Rose is working on a telephone exchange and gossiping with her coworkers in between answering calls):
Shove the jacks into the jills, says Alma at the switch. Rose blushes and laughs.
Good morning, Bairds, can I help you?
Bairds, good morning, sir, can I help you?
Can I help you?
I'm sorry, this is Bairds. Oh, you want beds!
Putting you through
Jack into Jill! yells Darleen, and they all crack up.
Gawd, love, why don't you feed yerself Good morning, Bairds.
Merle's in love with a dwarf Bairds, good morning.
Good morning. Bairds yer a liar, she's lyin.
Putting you through he's shorter than Mum's pastry!
Short ones've got fat thingies Good morning, Bairds.
Well she's hardly the eye of the needle One moment madam.
Youse sheilas are gettin fouler every year Can you hold?
He's never asked me, thank you, sir.
Exhausted from not laughing, Rose ploughs through every day with a crazy happiness. She takes home pay and the pavement smell of the city. She puts on a bit of flesh. She eats. The world looks different.
A few Aussie reviewers have said that the working-class slang spoken by Winton's characters sounds very dated to them; I'm not sure if they mean realistically dated (this is mid-century, after all), or unconvincingly stereotypical. I can say that his tone manages to feel both consistent and versatile to me, which is an achievement. The language in the chapter above reminds me of Scorcese's working-class Italian-American characters in films like Raging Bull: "Youse sheilas are gettin fouler every year" cued up Vikki LaMotta in my head, declaring "I'm tired of havin' to turn around and havin' both of yuz up my ass all the time." True, I've never known anyone who actually talks like this, and I can't vouch that anyone ever has, but it feels consistent and believable—even roughly beautiful—within the work.
Some of my favorite moments were the believably unpredictable times when one family or the other shares a moment of hilarity, evoked by Winton with a loving authenticity. In this scene, for example, Oriel Lamb crushes her young son by whisking his birthday cake out from under his nose and selling it to a stranger.
Birthday, Quick, said Fish.
Yeah, said Quick.
Suddenly, they all laughed—even Quick. It started as a titter, and went quickly to a giggle, then a wheeze, and then screaming and shrieking till they were daft with it, and when Oriel came back in they were pandemonious, gone for all money. But they paused like good soldiers when she solemnly raised her hand. She fished in her apron and pulled out a florin. Happy birthday, son.
You want change from this? said Quick.
That set them off again and there was no stopping them.
I love the way Quick goes from devastated to hilarious in a single moment here; it feels so true to those unexpected emotional switches that sometimes surprise a person. There are other scenes where everything should be fine with a character, and yet he is unaccountably plagued by melancholy; these moments are the counterpoint, when extreme disappointment suddenly flips over into uproarious laughter. Both scenarios ring emotionally true.
Nor is this scene an isolated incident. The characters in Cloudstreet are all so believable and flawed, and Winton portrays the strain in their relationships so well. I found the tension around Sam and Dolly's relationship especially heart-wrenching, gradually see-sawing as it does between his tendency to gamble away all their money and her efforts to drink herself to death—Winton's storytelling is never as melodramatic as that makes it sound, but he definitely does know how to build up some uncomfortable pressure. Cloudstreet sometimes struck me as a Western Australian version of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina, minus that novel's central theme of childhood sexual abuse. They share excellently gritty atmosphere and characterization: the tough-as-nails women, old before their time, the charismatic but irresponsible fathers and the daughters who are torn between loving and resenting them, the constant existence on the margins, always just getting by. I thought Winton did a great job making the physical and emotional reality of that world real to the reader.
The number one thing keeping Cloudstreet off my Favorite Novels list, however, are certain magical-realist tendencies, which I found more distracting than effective. I don't dislike magical realism uniformly: I love much of Salman Rushdie's work, and Winton's countryman Peter Carey uses the technique well in Illywhacker, his paean to compulsive lying and its role in Australian history. And I'm not sure if my reaction to Winton's magical realist touches were down to my mood—after so much experimental lit in January and February, I'm in the mood for a few straight realist narratives—but whatever the case, I felt like most of them detracted from the rest of the novel's charms. The Lambs, for example, own a pig speaks in a language that may be tongues. At first I thought this was psychological: Fish is the first person who hears the pig speak, and his mind works differently than others'. But then Lester hears the pig talk as well. And I felt that the level of suspension of disbelief necessary to accept a talking pig detracted from my enjoyment of the tangible reality and groundedness of the rest of Winton's world.
Similar incidents occur often enough that this issue was a thorn in my side throughout the reading. Winton's style just doesn't mesh with the book's more outlandish events, and they distract from his strengths without adding much substance. Sometimes, like in the scene where hundreds of fish throw themselves into Quick Lamb's boat, I felt the magic played with the issues of faith and religion/luck/chance central to the novel, so I tried to overlook it. But at other times I felt Winton could have explored his themes more effectively in other ways. I imagine, though, that for some people this aspect of the novel will be a plus rather than a minus; if you love magical realism for its own sake, I'd say this is definitely a book you should check out. Personally, I heartily enjoyed the more realist sections of the book, and am interested to explore Winton's other work.