Thea Astley‘s “Hunting the wild pineapple” is both a short story and the title of a collection of connected short stories (that includes, of course, the title story). Today I am going to write on the short story as it’s one of the 16 included in the current Meanjin Tournament of Books – and it has made it through to the second round.
“Hunting the wild pineapple” is the third story of eight, which are all narrated by a man called Leverson. It is set in far North Queensland in a place called Mango, which she writes about again in her 1987 novel, It’s raining in Mango. In this story, Leverson, accompanied by the American Mrs Crystal Bellamy who is “impossibly researching the human geography of the north for a nonsense thesis”, is visiting a pineapple farmer called Pasmore. Pasmore, while waiting for a lobster to thaw for dinner, takes his guests on a somewhat alcohol-fuelled car-ride, first to hunt for wild pineapples and then to visit his two migrant farm workers, “the two”.
It is pretty vintage Astley, at least mid-career Astley as I know her, with its lush, evocative, “imagistic” (as she once described it) language and its focus on inequitable human relationships in which one group, usually white men, wield power over another – women, migrants, and (though not in this particular story) indigenous people.
The story is set in the 1970s, and is characterised by satire and irony. Leverson describes Pasmore as
a well-intentioned buddy who wanted to prove we’re not all grubbing away at soil up here, that we’re smooth, polished, and have swung quite nicely, ta ever so, into the sophisticated seventies.
So smooth that outside the house we are left gawking at a whopping heart-shaped swimming-pool filled with blue tears that blinked as a woman (his wife?) plunged from sight.
See what I mean about the language? It’s packed with images and ideas that rub somewhat uncomfortably against each other. In Astley, discomforting language is de rigueur; it, more than plot or characterisation, is the tool she uses to unsettle us, to shock us out of our comfort zone and force us to confront the unkindness, the viciousness, if not the downright violence that she sees lurking beneath the surface of human interactions. (I admit now that I don’t always get it on a rational level, but it rarely fails to move me.) In this story, the relationships she spears with her pineapples are those between husband and wife (Mr Pasmore and Tubs), employer and worker (Mr Pasmore and migrant workers, Tom and Georgy), and even between colleagues (Tom and Georgy).
And yet, it’s Astley’s language that has got her most into trouble, because it is heavily imagistic (not at all spare, until perhaps her very last works which were a little sparer, comparatively speaking) and some readers and critics don’t like it. Here, for example, is Leverson on Pasmore presenting his hunted down, “huge humped” pineapple to Mrs Bellamy:
… he tattooed her arms with spikes; the head spears stabbed her skin. He lit, post-coitally I think nastily, a cigarette.
Not very subtle, eh, but effective in its hints of sex, power and violence. Similarly, here is Pasmore knocking on the door of “the two”, he
drummed a neat riff on the wall beside the open front door, the over-familiar, paternalistic-presumptuous tat-a-tat, tat-tat, and emitted hearty cries of boss-lure …
Writer and critic Kerryn Goldsworthy, like me, likes Astley. She says*:
I love Thea Astley’s writing and always have. I love its densely woven grammar, its ingrained humour, its uncompromising politics, its demented metaphors, and its undimmed outrage at human folly, stupidity and greed. I love the way that even at its most savage and despairing, it has always had a suggestion of redemptive energy working away somewhere in the plot, no matter how subterranean, outmaneuvered or comprehensively beaten down….
This story is a good example of the Astley that Goldsworthy and I like. There’s a savage bite to it, but there’s also the slightest hint of the opposite. I wonder how far it will get in Meanjin’s tournament.
“Hunting the wild pineapple”
in Hunting the wild pineapple and other related stories
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 63-76
* from “Undimmed Outrage”, Australian Book Review, Sept 1999, Issue no 214.