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Tim Winton Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Karrinyup, Western Australia, 1960. Education: Western Australian Institute of Technology. Awards: Australian /Vogel award, 1981, for An Open Swimmer; Miles Franklin award, 1984, for Shallows; Deo Gloria award, 1991, WA Premiers award, 1991, National Book Council's Banjo award, 1992, and Miles Franklin award, 1992, all for Cloudstreet.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

An Open Swimmer. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Shallows. Sydney, Unwin, 1985; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Atheneum, 1986.

That Eye, the Sky. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, New York, Atheneum, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

In the Winter Dark. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1988; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

Cloudstreet. London, Picador, 1991; Saint Paul, Minnisota, Graywolf Press, 1992.

The Riders. New York, Scribner, and London, Picador, 1995.

Blueback: A Contemporary Fable. New York, Scribner, 1997.

Short Stories

Scission. Fitzroy, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1985; as Scission and Other Stories, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.

Minimum of Two. Fitzroy, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1987; New York, Atheneum, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

Blood and Water. London, Picador, 1993.

Other

Jesse (for children). N.p., 1989.

Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo (for children). N.p., Bodley Head, 1990; Boston, Little Brown, 1991.

Local Colour: Travels in Australia, with Bill Bachman. London, Allen and Unwin, 1994.

* * *

Tim Winton is perhaps the most precocious and prolific novelist Australia has yet produced. Born in 1960, he published his first novel, An Open Swimmer, at the age of twenty-two and has subsequently gone on to publish more than a dozen books of fiction, including several for children. An Open Swimmer seems, like much of Winton's early fiction, to have been influenced by Hemingway, though Winton denies this and says he owes far more to fellow western Australian writer Randolph Stow. Its protagonist Jerra, short for Jeremiah, is a former admirer of The Old Man and the Sea, to which there are two references, and the novel takes laconicism almost to the point of silence. At one point the author even acknowledges this: "It was apathetic conversation, even for them." Not just Jerra and his mate Sean but all of the handful of characters in the novel speak in monosyllables, sparingly dished out, and the laconicism is carried over into the narrative voice of the novel as well. The spare, unadorned factuality of the writing is fleshed out with a few pervasive metaphors, the most important of which is the pearl that can sometimes be found in a kingfisher's head when it is cut open, but the theme of the novel is unclear, unless it is Jerra's sexual traumas, perhaps unwillingness to embrace the world of adulthood generally. As with much of Winton's work, the most interesting element is the preoccupation with landscape and especially seascape.

Set in the town of Angelus in the southern part of western Australia, Winton's second novel, Shallows (which won the Miles Franklin Award for best Australian novel of the year), deals with the conflict between whalers and a band of environmentalists who set out to disrupt the already dying industry. As The Old Man and the Sea provided a kind of reference point for the earlier novel, so Moby-Dick does for this. The novel cuts deliberately from character to character, as Shallows alternated between past and present. There are the young couple, Cleveland and Queenie Cookson, Queenie's father Daniel Coupar, the egregious Des Pustling and his reluctant girlfriend Marion Lowell, and the aged Presbyterian clergyman William Pell. There is a prologue set in 1831, and Winton also makes use of the diary of Daniel Coupart's grandfather, Nathaniel, which has been given to Cleve. The central conflict is between Cleve and Queenie but it springs up almost too quickly for plausibility and is dissolved at the end in a similarly peremptory manner. In the course of the narrative Queenie becomes steadily stronger while Cleve deteriorates morally, so that their final upbeat reunion, with Queenie pregnant by him, seems to have an imposed quality. The vision of life the novel offers is perhaps best summed up by Daniel Coupar: "It's having the choices that kills a man. It's the best and the worst. You get to choose and you get to regret. Almost guaranteed to bugger it up. And sometimes not."

Jerra reappears in Scission, Winton's first collection of short stories. The epigraphs, this time coming from The Book of Job and East Coker, suggest the increasing importance of Christian belief in Winton's work. Again the style is spare, restrained, attempting to suggest or imply unstated significances; most of the stories are very short. Domesticity—of a young couple, of father and son—and especially its fragility is often the main concern. In the final, title story, the preoccupation with "scissions" of various kinds is taken even into the writing itself, its style and structure acting out the sense of a mind incapable of ordering its experience. The rather awkward title of That Eye, the Sky refers to those who have aspiration or faith. The sky or its absence is constantly referred to throughout the novel: "I go out and look at the sky but it's blank; no stars, nothing," the novel's twelve-year-old narrator, Morton ("Ort") Flack, says despairingly at one point near the end. No matter. This is the most explicitly Christian of Winton's works to date, the culmination of the movement that led to the affirmations in many of the stories in Scission. There is literally a deus ex machina in the unlikely person of Henry Warburton, former poet and hippy and now evangelist and car thief as well as the seducer of Ort's renegade sister, Tegwyn, with whom he flees at the end of the novel. When Henry finally runs away for the second time and the family discovers that the car he brought back has been stolen, all would seem to be lost, but it is then that Ort experiences his epiphany. He sees his stricken father: "His eyes are open and they're on me and smiling as I come in shouting 'God! God! God!' His face is shining. I'm shaking all over. 'God! God! God!"'

The title of Minimum of Two, Winton's second collection of stories, refers to the sentence a rapist receives in the title story—"five years with a minimum before parole of two." Although one of the longest, at fifteen pages, it is also one of the weakest stories in this rather undernourished collection, the strongest point of which is its continuity with Winton's earlier fiction. In "Laps," for instance, we meet Queenie Cookson and her husband seven years after the events narrated in Shallows. More commonly, the protagonists are Jerra and, by implication, in "A Measure of Eloquence," his wife Rachel, their son Sam, and friends Ann and Philip. The story "Gravity" refers directly to when the honeymooning couple stayed in Jerra's shack. Jerra himself is now something of a mess. After trying to make it as a musician he seems burned-out, living off the dole, resentful of his parents and full of self-pity. The final story takes us back in time to the agonizingly painful birth of Sam. "Blood and Water" reminds us of the dedication of the book to Winton's wife and child in its graphic, impressionist account of childbirth. Elsewhere, though, the prose takes on the familiar cadences of Hemingway, as in this passage from "Forest Winter": "He had been broken once before, years back, when he was still half a boy, and he knew that when you were beaten properly, you didn't get up; you had to wait for some obscure grace to put you together, and there was no guarantee it would come by a second time." That "obscure grace" is the key to Winton's vision.

In the Winter Dark is unusual among Winton's fiction, a short, barely novella-length account by an old man of a series of horrifying events that took place almost a year ago. Of the four people involved, two are now dead, the narrator Maurice Stubbs is tortured by incessant nightmares, and Murray Jaccob, his neighbor in the isolated valley known as the Sink, is drinking himself to death. Something or someone, we slowly learn, has been killing and disemboweling the animals in the area, but when Maurice and his wife, Jaccob, and a pregnant young woman named Ronnie collaborate to hunt it down they are unsuccessful, as their own private fears and guilts from the past take over. The novel is a skillful study in suspense.

Cloudstreet, perhaps Winton's most impressive and substantial novel, won him a second Miles Franklin Award. It is the most ambitious of his works, not only in terms of its length and in the time it covers (roughly 1943 to 1964), but also in its extraordinary gallery of characters and in the stylistic experiments that are new to Winton's fiction and seem to move him almost into the realms of magic realism. The novel is the story of two families named Lamb and Pickles (Winton has a lot of fun with names in this novel), who move into a huge house at no. 1 Cloud Street and bicker and love their way through two decades of Australian history. Lester and Oriel Lamb are God-fearing people who give thanks to the Lord when their son Fish comes back from drowning—except that not all of Fish Lamb has come back, his brain having been left behind in the sea. Sam and Dolly Pickles, on the other hand, are a feckless couple who fail to prosper. Sam loses most of the fingers of one hand in an episode of violence characteristic of this novel and takes to gambling; Dolly is an alcoholic. Winton covers the history of both sets of parents and their numerous offspring in numerous short episodes, some comic, others near tragic.

The style of the novel varies. There are sections written in the present tense, sudden bursts of lyricism, passages of interior monologue, and a great deal of slightly heightened Australian vernacular. Winton is also fond of bizarre and incongruous juxtapositions, often of a comically macabre kind: "His mother came in to find him stuffing the old boy's dentures in. He stopped rigid, they exchanged looks, and it appeared with the upper plate the way it was, that the old man had died eating a small piano." There are also ventures into fabulism: the house in which they live gives out sighs, a pig speaks in Pentecostal tongues, a woman sets up house in a tent in the backyard. If there is a sustaining theme running through the novel it is the various views of chance and the contingent that the two families hold. For Sam Pickles, luck is "the shifty shadow of God," which "you do your best to stay out of the way of." Whereas with the Lambs, there is "making luck, the hardest … yacker there is."

The Riders is Winton's most baffling novel, though it is also quite exhilarating to read. A young Australian man named Scully labors in the novel's first section to restore a house in Ireland that he has bought on the whim of his wife. He is sustained in his labor by the thought of her imminent arrival as well as that of their seven-year-old daughter, Billie, but when he finally gets to the airport only his daughter is there, too traumatized to explain what has happened. The rest of the novel is concerned with Scully's demented chase all over Europe—Greece, Italy, France, Holland, England—in search of his missing wife, a search that is finally left unresolved.

Winton's account of Scully's quest is as electrifying as it is implausible. Scully himself may embody all the possibilities, play all the roles that his creator suggests—"working-class boofhead with a wife who married beneath herself," "hairy bohemian with a beautiful family," "mongrel expat with the homesick twang and ambitious missus," "poor decent-hearted bastard who couldn't see the roof coming down on his head." It is not possible to decide who or what he is because his behavior and personality change from moment to moment as he is violently propelled through the next series of dramatic events. Whatever he is, he behaves with a quite exceptional stupidity that, like much else in this novel, remains as mysterious as the imagery of the night riders that runs through the novel.

Blueback: A Contemporary Fable is the story of a boy and a blue grouper, the title character. It is not so much a novel as a tract, a call for environmental responsibility, and the spare, clean quality of Winton's language here is not helped by the use of preachy messages such as "there was nothing in nature as cruel and savage as a greedy human being." Yet this book, too, contains themes common to Winton's best work. The motif of the quest or the odyssey is present in most of his fiction, especially as it concerns the quest in search of the self. Also central is the tension between a sense of the importance of chance and the contingent in life and the wavering faith in some kind of force that imposes order upon the universe. Perhaps this is what Winton's protagonist senses in the riders he glimpses again at the end of the novel: "He knew them now and he saw that they would be here every night seen and unseen, patient, dogged faithful in all weathers and all worlds, waiting for something promised, something that was plainly their due, but he knew that as surely as he felt Billie tugging on him, curling her fingers in his and pulling them easily away, that he would not be among them and must never be, in life or death."

—Laurie Clancy,

updated by Judson Knight

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