If you grew up in Brisbane in the 1970s and 1980s, Praise, the debut novel by Andrew McGahan, was to the city’s literature what the Saints’ (I’m) Stranded was to music. Appearing in 1992, when it won the Vogel award for best unpublished manuscript, it captured the town’s torpor and the ambivalence of its inhabitants better than any book since David Malouf’s Johnno.
But whereas Malouf luxuriated in detailed poetic descriptions and may have been the first writer to describe Brisbane as a “big country town” (and Johnno moved at about the same pace), Praise was full of pent-up energy. A classic of Australian dirty realism, it’s a novel in which not a lot happens – but like Brisbane itself, all the action is happening beneath the banal facade, fuelled by frustration and repressed rage.
“Look at this city,” complains one of its minor characters, on holiday from a bigger, brighter world. “There’s nothing happening. There’s no one on the streets. How can you stand it?” Gordon (whose very name is used as a metaphor for the town’s plainness) replies that things are happening: “You just have to look a little harder. At least no one bothers you. There’s worse places than Brisbane.”
“There’s better,” comes the reply.
Malouf would have agreed. “Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely!” he wrote. “I have taken to wandering about after school looking for one simple object in it that might be romantic, or appalling even, but there is nothing. It is simply the most ordinary place in the world.”
Johnno was set in the Brisbane of the 1940s and 50s; Praise, though, is set in the aftermath of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Moonlight State and the Fitzgerald Inquiry, as Queensland emerged, blinking, into the late 20th century. It’s not a political book – Gordon’s main traits are his aimlessness, his sexual neuroses and dysfunction – but the atmosphere of the era, and of Brisbane, is embedded in every one of its bullet-tipped sentences.
Praise was followed by a prequel, 1988. It’s regarded in some quarters as even better than its predecessor, but left open the question of whether McGahan could move past semi-autobiography.
That question was answered with Last Drinks, a superb mash-up of historical fiction, crime and murder mystery inspired by the police brutality and corruption of pre-Fitzgerald Queensland that contained this description of its parliament:
“Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty. So much so that the Queensland parliament sometimes bordered on a sideshow collection of the ugly, the misshapen and the incoherent.”
If that sounds like a cruel or inaccurate representation now – with the Fitzgerald Inquiry casting what is now the LNP into purgatory for well over a generation, and the state governed by a female leader and deputy – cast an eye over certain Queensland representatives in the federal Senate. Published in late 2000, Last Drinks won the Ned Kelly award for crime writing; personally, it was a direct inspiration for my book Pig City. I owe McGahan a lot.
He was born in Dalby on the Darling Downs, the setting for his next book, The White Earth, which won a swag of awards including the Miles Franklin in 2005. Compared to Patrick White’s Voss, it was a move away from dirty realism and into a new kind of (deep) northern Gothic, set against the Mabo judgment, native title legislation and the spectre of Hansonism and white supremacy. Some sections that read as far-fetched at the time seem prescient now.
That goes double for Underground, an unashamed stab at popular fiction that eschewed the subtlety of its predecessor entirely. Published in 2006, it was a paranoid dystopia with a back-jacket blurb that now seems even more eerily prophetic: describing an Australia “transformed by the never-ending war on terror [where] suspect minorities have been locked away into ghettos. And worse – no one wants to play cricket with us anymore.”
From there, he moved into young adult fiction, with five further novels including the four-part Ship Kings series, with the final instalment published in 2016. A final manuscript, a thriller set in Tasmania titled The Rich Man’s House, was completed before his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 52. He is survived by his partner, Liesje.
First published in The Guardian, 2 February 2019