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Roger McDonald Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Young, New South Wales, Australia, 1941. Education: University of Sydney, B.A. 1962. Career: High school teacher, Murrumburrah and Wellington, Australia, 1963-64; producer, Educational Radio and Television, Brisbane, Australia, 1964-67, Hobart, Australia, 1967-69; editor, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Australia, 1969-76; full-time writer, 1977—. Awards: Book of the Year award (The Age), 1979; Biennial Prize for Literature from South Australian Government, 1980; Canada-Australia Literary Prize, 1981; Banjo Award for Nonfiction, 1993.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

1915: A Novel. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1979; New York, Braziller, 1980.

Slipstream. Boston, Little Brown, 1982.

Flynn: A Novelisation. New York, Penguin, 1992.

Water Man. Sydney, Picador, 1993.

Rough Wallaby. Sydney, Picador, 1995.

The Slap. Sydney, Picador, 1996.

Mr. Darwin's Shooter. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.

Poetry

Citizens of Mist. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1968.

Airship. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1975.

Other

Australia's Flying Doctors: The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (text), photographs by Richard Woldendorp. Sydney, Pan McMillan, 1994.

Editor, The First Paperback Poets Anthology. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1974.

* * *

Roger McDonald established a considerable reputation within Australia as a poet and editor before turning to fiction with 1915, a novel which was an immediate commercial and critical success. The title is a reference to Australia's entry into World War I at the battle of Gallipoli, now seen as a watershed in the country's history and the origin of many of its myths of nationalism. The two central characters, Billy McKenzie and Walter Gilchrist, enlist; within a few months both of them are out of action but terminally scarred. Walter is a prisoner of the Turks; Billy has returned to Australia with a head wound that confines him to a lunatic asylum.

McDonald seems to be setting out quite consciously to question the mythic status of Gallipoli, pondering as to why the country's young men signed up so eagerly in the war though without coming to any definite answers. England is thought by some to be the Mother Country, inherently superior, though no one (including the novel's heroine Frances) is quite sure why; both she and her best friend Diana, plump for the un-English sides of their ancestry when pressed. War relieves the young men of the difficult business of dealing with women and sexuality. The two young men go, a socialist school teacher Tom Larsen suggests, because they are simply bored and attracted by the prospect of adventure.

Walter and Billy are carefully conceived as opposites. Billy is the larrikin, successful if sometimes brutal with women, unintellectual, a lethal sniper in the war but basically unsure as to what he is doing there. Walter plans to become a writer: "If it came to a fight," McDonald tells us, "Walter's only weapon, words, would be next to useless. Billy's weapons, sharpened on rough experience, could do their work swiftly." McDonald's background as a poet emerges in the nature of his highly mannered, self-conscious prose. Highly elaborate similes alternate with bland generalizations about the characters. There are frequent foreshadowings: "Later Walter was to recall nearly everything Hurst said." The artful mannerism of the writing is often at odds with the brutality of its subject matter.

McDonald's second novel, Slipstream, seems to be based loosely on the life of a well-known Australian aviator, Charles Kingsford-Smith, but again McDonald is most interested in exploring and perhaps challenging Australian myths. His protagonist is Roy Hilman, superb flyer, World War I hero, stunt aviator in Hollywood but a man so taciturn that one of the more intelligent characters, the politician Leonard Baxter, claims that "there was nothing inside him," and that he was "a brave youth but had never arrived at manhood." It is impossible to judge the truth of Baxter's assessment because the novel offers a number of enigmatic portraits of Hilman without privileging any one of them. Hilman seems to exists mainly as an idea in the minds of a number of other characters who themselves are kept at a distance from the reader. Abandoning the poetic lyricism of his first novel, McDonald writes often in the tone of a dispassionate observer/reporter.

Rough Wallaby is the least demanding of McDonald's novels. It is an almost burlesque work about a group of knockabout characters and a racing scam involving the substitution of one horse for another. As is sometimes the case with McDonald there are almost too many characters to keep track of. McDonald defines the title as "what you get when your dreams come true. Only nobody said you were going to like it." Or in the novel, "what everyone got at the end, when they were forced down to living out their dreams." Rough Wallaby is a raucously Australian novel in a self-conscious kind of way. The characters are constantly cracking "tinnies," talking in ostentatious slang.

Water Man is divided into two sections—"Departure," which starts off in 1939, and "Return," set in 1993. The first half is associated with Gunner Fitch, a water diviner, married to Rosan who has fallen in love with one of Fitch's clients. William D'Inglis commissions Gunner to find water on his property but before he is able to confirm his discovery he has enlisted in the army and is blown to pieces at the siege of Tobruk. McDonald is, as ever, not averse to the poetic phrase, speaking for instance of "thoroughbreds with hooves like lacquered half-coconuts." The tension between Gunner Fitch and William D'Inglis does not end with the former's death but is replayed half a century later with Mal Fitch and Ida D'Inglis, with a city locale this time, rather than a country one. McDonald makes his novel as complicated as possible by frequent cuts between past and present and from one character and scene to another, crowding his novel with a plethora of minor characters, and writing at times in a quasi-poetic style that strains for clarity and leans heavily on mysteriously recurring motifs such as the torch, the snake ring.

The critic Katharine England has noted the use of the four elements in McDonald's work—air (Slipstream), earth (Rough Wallaby), water (Water Man) and, in The Slap, fire. The "hero" of the novel, the weakly Tanner Hatton Finch, is a fire bug and again an intricate narrative tells his history. Disabled to the point where he is not expected to live beyond twenty-five, his annealed body is miraculously cured when he is accidentally stabbed with a knife he himself has stolen. The first half of the novel is set in 1954, though there are frequently italicized flash forwards to what we eventually discover is Tanner's (now Ted's) situation: he blew up the police station occupied by the sergeant who had tormented him but without knowing that it was occupied by a young constable, his wife and baby. Finch is sentenced to life imprisonment, never to be released, but eventually friends secure his freedom and the second half of the novel picks up Ted's life after twenty-five years in prison. McDonald strains for an ironically redemptive ending but the highly self-conscious nature of both the structure and the writing mitigate against it.

Mr. Darwin's Shooter is McDonald's biggest success since 1915, winning the Premier's Awards in both Victoria and New South Wales. The eponymous shooter is Syms Covington, a man who rates only brief mentions in most biographies of Charles Darwin but who is elevated to the status of protagonist in the novel, dwarfing the great man himself. Adopted by Darwin on board the Beagle as a youth, Covington becomes his assistant, responsible for the gathering of many of Darwin's specimens, as well as the treatment and dispatch of them to England. He is also copyist and general factotum. McDonald cuts between the periods of 1828 and the twelve-year-old Covington, and 1858-1861, with the middle-aged Covington in New South Wales, worrying about, among other things the implications of Darwin's forthcoming book. The novel works by binary oppositions like these: Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress with its pious certainty versus the revolutionary skepticism of On Origin of the Species; Covington's own simple faith versus Darwin's growing distance from it; the death of a young boy Joey and the later death in Australia, in similar circumstances, of another lad, Charley Pickastick; Covington's tense youthful relationship with Darwin in contrast to Doctor MacCracken's similar problematic relationship in turn with him. McDonald throughout the novel constantly, if delicately, suggests homoerotic elements in the relationships between many of the male figures in the novel: "You have been lying in brother Phipps's arms, and he has been a-whispering in your ear, and lo he has made a slave of you to his affections," Covington tells Joey.

McDonald's prose is again mannered. We get many jocular passages like this: "She startled him, pulling at his clothes. 'Now we play hunt the dummy,' he thought to himself. Out flipped his Nimrod from his trousers, and she took it in her fingers, trilling 'Olay.' She favoured him, then, in such a surprising movimiento that he forthwith spilled his milk." It is also full of knowing anticipations—"When in later years MacCracken got through to a settled plan of life …." But the story is a fascinating one, researched with all the assiduousness that is a trademark of his work. Covington is an impressive creation in his complex mixture of animal appetite and piety, submissiveness and ambition, in contrast to the Gent, as Darwin is called in the novel, who is a less realized and less sympathetic figure.

McDonald has also written fictionalized biographies of two famous Australian identities, Nellie Melba and Errol Flynn, and has written for television.

Laurie Clancy

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