The Western is making a comeback. That venerable tradition of horses, six-shooters and life on the frontier is being reimagined in a more visceral form. From America, the home of the Western, has come the likes of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the HBO series Deadwood – bloody, violent retellings of Western lore which seek to extract a deeper truth about life on the frontier than those of the Spaghetti western era.
Australia is not immune to this renaissance in the genre. With many of the same ingredients – rapacious settlers, a dispossessed indigenous population, outlaws and lawmen – and with the added twist of transportation to the world’s largest open-air prison, Australia has always had a Western-style tradition. The American restylings of the genre have not gone unnoticed here. Movies like The Proposition and The Tracker and the constant reworking of the Ned Kelly story are testament to this.
Lenny Bartulin was previously known for his Raymond Chandler-esque Sydney-noir crime novels A Deadly Business, The Black Russian and De Luxe, but with Infamy he moves away from the crime genre and takes on the new western tradition. Set in Tasmania in 1830, Infamy follows the fortunes of a large cast of inhabitants in and around Hobart as a convict uprising brews in the hinterland.
Hobart is the frontier, months away from mother England and separated from mainland control by the treacherous Bass Strait. While it is ‘pretty enough, nestled neatly at the foot of a big grey mountain’, Hobart is revealed to be a town of bars and whorehouses, free settlers living off the back of free convict labour and people on the make. It is ruled over by the canny but weak Lieutenant Governor Arthur, and hamstrung by an untrustworthy and mainly corrupt administration.
Into this milieu comes William Burr, tempted from British Honduras where he has been hunting mahogany pirates by the promise of land, to hunt down the escaped convict Brown George Coyne. Burr is the closest Infamy gets to the ‘white hat’ of the old Western tradition, a moral centre around which the rest of the plot can turn, and an exemplar of the Western style. And no sooner has he stepped off the boat from Sydney than he is chasing kidnappers on his trusty steed:
Though the brumby galloped strongly and gained, they were both stiff and still a little at sea… The thrill was in man and horse now and Burr let her out some more, the brumby’s mane flicking like a flame over his arms, her stride long and pounding.
While this is classic Western stuff, the overall narrative is very much in the New Western mode. There are moments of almost random extreme violence and an anarchy in which characters the reader develops some interest in can suddenly and graphically die. But in line with this tradition there are also moments of poetry – reflections on the wild Tasmanian landscape, which itself is almost a character.
Brown George Coyne, again as expected, is an erudite psychopath. A survivor of the hellish Macquarie Harbour, he styles himself King George, the rightful ruler of Tasmania, and sits on a throne of wrought timber in a hidden valley outside of Hobart. His vision of an uprising leading to a convict Utopia, with some clandestine official backing, drives the plot and the diverse cast of characters.
Burr and Coyne are set up as the white and black poles of the tale, but Bartulin’s narrative spends only a little time with these two, his eye ranging over a broad cross-section of characters. This includes Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, respectable plotter Trentham and his shady offsider, Chief Magistrate McQuillan and his Honduran wife Magdalena, the corrupt and unhinged Magistrate Stephen Vaughan, Government house spy Tilly Holt, through to the motley and slightly inept convict crew gathered around Coyne.
Infamy also explores the history of Aboriginal Tasmania in this period through a number of Indigenous characters. Driven from their land, hunted for bounty, used and betrayed, the Tasmanian Aboriginal characters in the book strive and fail to understand the new world which has imposed itself on them and are subject to the ruthless and genocidal policies of the British.
One of these is a character called Black Betty, taken by Coyne and used by him to connect to the local tribes, constantly plotting his demise but unable to carry her plans through. Juxtaposed to this is the plight of Robert Ringa, an Aboriginal tracker brought from Sydney by the authorities to track runaway convicts. Ringa is unable to track in a landscape that is not his own, shunned by the local tribes as a collaborator and turned to alcohol, he has lost the will to fight.
No one pretends that Westerns are purely historical novels. They use a period of history and its trappings, but are in themselves a genre and follow some well-worn paths. The modern Western does not deviate too far from these roots but has a much greater focus on the hardscrabble, bloody, tooth-and-claw existence of life on the frontier.
Infamy, really a Southern rather than a Western, is a great Australian addition to this tradition. It has something to say about life in convict Australia but is also for those who relish a classic frontier adventure tale peppered with well set-up cliffhangers, a fascinating cast of ne’re-do-wells, some Tarantino-esque bloodbaths and a dash of romance.
Allen & Unwin 2013
Robert Goodman is an institutionalised public servant and obsessive reader, who won a science fiction short-story competition very early in his career but has found reviewing a better outlet for his skills. He was a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards for eight years and reviews for a number of other publications including Aurealis and the Australian Public Sector News – see his website: www.pilebythebed.com