Alex Miller's 'Coal Creek'
In thrall to Queensland’s stone country, Miller’s latest novel draws deeply from his past.
Some writers’ imaginations are roused most strongly by the view from their doorsteps. John Updike created a literary cosmos from the small-town, middle-class Protestant America of his youth. Irishman John McGahern spent a lifetime turning County Leitrim into a realm of Greek tragedy, small acres of pastoral agon. Neither man’s fiction represented a retreat from the world into the parochial. They mined universals from the ground beneath their feet.
To follow Alex Miller once again into the stone country of Central Queensland, a landscape sacred in the author’s memory and an essential site for his fiction, is to watch a self return to its wellsprings, and not only in terms of place. Coal Creek (Allen & Unwin; $29.99), his 11th book, is set in a region immediately familiar to readers of Landscape of Farewell and Journey to the Stone Country. It is set during the 1950s, as are the author’s first two novels, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain and The Tivington Nott, published in 1988 and 1989 respectively. Coal Creek can be enjoyed by its own lights, but deepens when read as a reprise of the characters and themes of those early works.
So, a return to origins, both literary and autobiographical. Miller spent some of his formative years in Queensland’s central ranges, working as a stockman. For the young English-born migrant the experience satisfied a desire to remake himself in a demanding environment and to escape modest beginnings, like many a Conradian Romantic before him. This newly composed self did not exist in isolation from people and place, however. Miller absorbed the history and geography, the language and lore of both black and white worlds in that region, and over the decades transformed these into a personal totem: a story fund, a moral frame, an outback aesthetic.
Bobby Blue, the hero of this latest novel, is an ideal embodiment of Miller’s insider–outsider status. He is the son of a stockman and has known nothing but the town of Mount Hay though he is almost 21. Orphaned, Bobby is obliged to find a new means to survive working for the local constable, Daniel Collins – a veteran of conflict in Papua New Guinea fresh from the Queensland coast, and an educated man. Daniel takes on Bobby as a deputy, as well as a boarder. Bobby shares meals with Daniel’s family and is even taught to read by the elder daughter of the house, Irie. But a certain social distance ensures that, even in the midst of this kindly domestic proximity, Bobby dwells apart.
The young man shares with most of Miller’s masculine paragons a combination of watchful quietude and everyday competence. His voice is the sole window readers have onto events, and while uneducated it bears mature circumspection. Though plain, Bobby’s speech carries a Biblical tincture, cadences learnt by heart from the one text his mother read to him as a child:
Daniel had read to me from his geology book one evening that the grey dust of the ranges is all that is left of what was mountains worn down by time. I thought of that when I seen Rosie’s bare feet scuffling through it. Rosie [Gnapun, doubtless a relative of Dougald, whom we have met before in Miller’s fiction] was the grey dust herself. It was something to watch out for and I always gave her my full respect, as my father did. Them Old People knows things us whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us. We are like germs to them Old People, blown in on a foul wind.
Daniel and his wife Esme are a signal instance of incomers whose book-learnt knowledge is at best inapplicable and at worst devastating to themselves and others. Indeed it is the couple’s well-meaning desire to improve the town and its residents that sets in motion events that will ultimately destroy them. Bobby knows this, as he knows much else, yet he seems incapable of acting to avoid it. If this indicates a certain fatalism on his part, it also hints at that which makes him cleave to the family, despite his growing misgivings.
That reason is love. Bobby has fallen for Irie. At 13 she is too young, and the gap in class and education between them too great. It is the forbidden nature of their otherwise innocent attraction that drives the coming tragedy. Fans of Miller’s work may see the lineaments of older stories here: our gradual recognition of Daniel’s weakness as a man, for example, harks back to Watching the Climbers on the Mountain, in which the young stockman Robert Crofts becomes the lover of Ida Rankin, wife of the impotent station owner, Ward. Peter Pierce recently observed that the jealousy Ward feels for the shining youth Robert echoes a similar dynamic in Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, and the very name “Bobby Blue” seems to reinforce this connection in Coal Creek. As Melville wrote:
Though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law.
Which perfectly captures the flaw that will bring Bobby down: an ambivalence towards the coastal edicts that Daniel represents, particularly in relation to Bobby’s childhood friend Ben Tobin, a local scapegrace who has taken up with an Aboriginal girl, Rosie Gnapun’s niece, and who soon comes into conflict with Daniel. But there are other connections embedded in Coal Creek, too. In no novel since his first (in terms of composition, not publication), The Tivington Nott, has Miller dwelt so much on animality – via his narrator, communing with horses, dogs, birds – in order to expand our sense of animals’ worldly presence; their silence, which is eloquent of otherness; and their patiently borne suffering at our hands:
That is something I have never done, to shoot an eagle. I would fear the curse of it would never leave me in peace ever again. But people do it. Calm as anything. Like they believe they are the boss of the eagles. Which they are not. I could not do it. An eagle is an eagle. We are not that. We are only men. When you live as we had lived their lives in the scrubs you know you are not the boss of nothing and there is the sky and the eagles and the scrubs going on forever into them great stone escarpments. No man knows himself to be the boss of that.
Bobby is not only enunciating his love of and respect for the animal world from a position of dominion – a slumming anthropocentrist. He is full of fear and trembling. This is the means by which Bobby describes his own animal terrors, his marginal status. A voice from the fringes, the narrator speaks for all those dispossessed here. He lingers in particular over those indigenous characters who remain the disregarded victims of events. We may be forgiven for applying a Christian lens to Bobby’s decency and self-sacrifice. Yet it is the landscape of Mount Hay that remains the most significant force in the novel: a Godless place in Western terms, though filled with spirits and animal life.
Bobby attends to the lessons of this place in a way that Daniel and his wife never will. Their educated sophistication reflects only a more elegantly propounded narrowness of view. It is the young man, in all his ignorance, who appreciates the strangeness and the provisional nature of white people’s presence in Mount Hay. He takes a broader perspective. His generosity of spirit inheres in the belief that there may be more than one law, one culture to which the truth of things belongs.
Miller’s voice is never more pure or lovely than when he channels it through an instrument as artless as Bobby. Some will complain that Coal Creek is only as complex as the words in which it is expressed, but I disagree. The intelligence of the author haunts the novel, like an atmosphere: a “colouring of the air”, writes Proust, like “the bloom on a grape”:
If we have not felt it, this inexpressible thing, we flatter ourselves that our work is as good as the work of those who feel it, since the words are more or less the same. But it is not in the words, it is not said, it is all in among the words, like the morning mist at Chantilly.
Or like the play of moonlight on the scrub beside the red wall that leads to the old playgrounds of the Murri people.