Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook – review
July 3, 2009
The news that a newly remastered digital version of the movie Wake in Fright has just been released inspired me to read the classic novel by Kenneth Cook published in 1961, and it’s terrific. (There are spoilers in the following).
Wake in Fright tells the story of a mild-mannered young teacher, John Grant, who is stuck at a remote school in the outback. When term ends he plans to return to Sydney for six weeks, but on the way he has to stop at the town of Bundanyabba (‘The Yabba’). Here he is encouraged to join drinking sessions with the locals, whose feats of prodigious consumption continue through the novel; unwisely plays a two-up game; has a disastrous drunken sexual encounter; is taken on a kangaroo hunt at which he surprises himself with his capacity for violence; is subjected to some kind of undefined abuse by a creepy alcoholic doctor, Tydon; finally, broke and desperate, and believing he will never escape from ‘The Yabba’, he attempts suicide in a local park.
The novel brilliantly captures Grant’s sense of isolation in an alien environment. He’s a city man, easily recogniseable as such, totally out of place in the hard drinking outback. Yet no one, except Tydon, treats him with cruelty – on the contrary, they treat him kindly, at least according to local custom. They insist on buying him drinks, give him a place to sleep, look out for his welfare, offer him rides. Grant manages to bring his own near-destruction on himself.
This isn’t a novel about a good and decent man destroyed by malevolent forces. Grant makes a succession of what, these days, are described as “bad choices”; in doing so he uncovers an undreamt of capacity for vice and violence in himself. Essentially, he’s weak. There is an excruciating scene in which Grant, completely rat-arsed and brandishing a knife, crudely slaughters a young kangaroo. As he does so he feels a moment of shame: “Oh God! what was he, John Grant, schoolteacher and lover, doing out here under the contemptuous stars butchering this warm grey beast?” but this isn’t enough to stop him from killing more kangaroos. (The kangaroo scene is so confronting in the movie that people walked out recently when it was shown at Cannes; it is just as horrible in the novel).
The people of The Yabba (which apparently was based on Broken Hill - and having been there I believe it) don’t come out of the book looking like admirable citizens. “You could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything … But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy.” But Grant’s downfall is of his own making. Cook handles this extremely skilfully: each step seems totally credible, and the outcome is as inevitable as the question he keeps getting asked: “Have another drink mate?”
Cook was a journalist for many years and the writing is journalistic in a good way (which is to say, a rare way). The style is economical and observant, with an eye for the telling detail, particularly good at describing action – the two-up game and the kangaroo hunt are tours de force. Imagery isn’t over-used and when there is an image, it’s a good one. Take these sentences from early in the book: “In a year in the west he had not been able to make up his mind whether the sunglasses were any use or not. The glare was white with them off and grey with them on, if glare can be grey, and the shafts of white came in at the side, like little pointed pieces of stone driving at his eyes.”
Wake In Fright was Cook’s first novel and his most successful in a prolific career. Apparently it was on school syllabuses for years (I wonder what they made of it in Broken Hill) and hasn’t ever been out of print. Hopefully, the re-release of the movie will encourage more readers to go back to this excellent novel.