Review by Tristan Foster
It’s summertime in an Australian east-coast country town, school is done for the year and, to three bored friends, a night of riverside drinking sounds like a good idea. The unfortunate trio are Jenny, Tom and Danny, country teens who seem to have the feeling that fortune doesn’t have much planned for them anyway. Soon, they’re making bad decisions faster than they can finish their stubbies, the outcomes of which will resonate for entire lifetimes.
This is the premise of Anthony J. Langford’s debut, Bottomless River, a novella that attempts a study of how quickly ego and teenage lust can change – or set – the course of young lives.
There is, at its base, a good story here. Something in the hearts of these kids, the boys in particular, was broken a long time before a single night on the grog. But the essence of why they act the way they do – country living, abusive parents, general disaffectedness – the reader never gets a hint of. Of course, reasons do not by necessity have to be forthcoming; how often in life are we left searching for reasons to justify our actions? Nor is a Miltonesque epic needed. But if the fall of man is inevitable and paradise is always going to be lost, a reader needs something more substantial from a narrative than a string of simple, ill-conceived actions.
This is one of the key problems with Bottomless River: the potential – and there is plenty here, the opening line holds such promise – for dramatic tension and, by extension, narrative richness, remains largely unharvested. Sadly, in its place is an expository account of the next couple of decades of Danny’s life and his attempts to come to terms with his actions on that night. In a story of only 59 pages, it’s a lot to cover – too much, in fact.
The story’s evocations of summer for some directionless, country teens was something that returned to me later, when I’d put the book away and should have been thinking of other things. It’s probably no coincidence that it is this section that’s written with the most clarity, the most feeling. When this clarity ebbs away, scenes can verge on the surreal, even the comical. For instance, a drinker at the local pub is described as ‘a big Italian guy’ who is ‘dirty and jagged’, in sum, ‘a filthy dirt bag’, the narrator giving the man the nickname of Gepetto.
These are things that could be assumed to be part of the Danny’s personality; being the main character and narrator, it is of course his views and biases that inflect this sort of narrative. It’s an interesting and challenging stylistic decision to make, have a narrator who isn’t particularly intelligent or robust tell the story of how his life and the lives of his friends got ruined. And there is realism lurking behind the voice – Danny’s life choices, crucial to his character, have also reduced the possibilities of the tale.
It’s a lack of sensitivity to the narrative world around him that makes this voice seem slightly askew. When the characters are young, the voice is a closer fit, as if the narrator is re-entering the immature mind of his teens. But as the narrative races to the present, there is little progression. While it is consistent, I wonder if this understatedness is an aspect of the narrator’s character, or a flaw in the author.
The real problem, however, is our narrator tells the story. He tells it without showing any real desire to set a scene or stopping to step outside himself, and suddenly he’s doubled in age, unhappily married and being accused of slipping a hand down his sister-in-law’s pants. Rather than actually giving us a story, these passages of expository, breakneck prose occasionally read as commentary on a story happening somewhere in the distance. This has an effect not dissimilar to speeding through a city with your eyes closed while somebody lists off what’s passing outside your window; it forces an expanse between reader and text, creating a reading experience that’s pleasureless and impersonal.
Maybe as a result of this narrative style, turns of phrase don’t come easily yet clichés will occasionally pockmark a page. And maybe not; the lack of even simple editorial guidance can be exasperating. There are also several crucial typos and incorrect uses of words, which makes me wonder if a professional editor has indeed read the manuscript.
The cover design of Bottomless River suffers from a similar failing. Front and back, it consists of a dark blue oval on a light blue background with a photograph superimposed over the top and Papyrus font for the copy. This is not the work of a professional graphic designer. But it’s a crucial element in attracting curious bookshop patrons, online and off, and it needs to be addressed if it’s to do this.
In the final chapter, the narrative gets some much needed verve. The story has come to the present, from where ‘this memoir or confession or whatever it is’ is written. Given the relative liveliness of the present tense and the change it brings to the dynamic of the story, it’s a shame the reader doesn’t get more time here.
It’s hard not to feel that the above criticisms are simply a long and slippery way of saying that Ginninderra Press have not done what they’re obliged to do as publishers of Bottomless River. At the very least, a publisher must provide its writers with a basic service. By agreeing to put this book out into the world while not putting their resources into it, Ginninderra Press have failed this new author – and treated his readers with something that bears a scary resemblance to indifference. They will need to invest more in their future publications if they’re to be perceived as a professional alternative publishing house by the book-buying public.
Anthony J. Langford
Ginninderra Press, 2012