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June 04, 2014

Book Review - Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

Cook’s interrogation of the myth of mateship in the Australian outback follows John Grant, a Sydney born and educated school teacher, who does a stint in a microscopic town in Outback Australia. Looking forward to a six week escape in Sydney he passes through Bundanyabba. Little does he know he will not be getting to Sydney, instead falling into the dark wonderland that is ‘the Yabba’. This is a land of drink and death, of blokes and brutality, and after one night Grant finds himself a broke drifter. Desperate, he passes through the beer glasses of several hosts, experiencing new nightmares with each of these new mates. Upon sobering he realizes the peculiarity that meant you could “sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately become a mortal enemy.” This is the heart of Cook’s narrative, the harsh, drunken masculinity of ‘mateship’ and its disregard for all else. Like many literary works of the 1970s by male authors the female characters are underdeveloped, mere placeholders and window-dressing. But in the world Cook creates there would be little for them to do, apart from being used and abused. This savage land leaves Grant at the mercy of the two foes he comes to distrust the most, with beer becoming his saving grace and violence his only salvation. An antidote to the heroism of "Banjo" Patterson’s “Man from Snowy River”, Cook rounds out the myth that is the Outback. Wake in Fright is a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to really understand all about Australia. Andreas

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