Two things I loved about Stephen Orr’s novel The hands (my review) were its evocation of men, boys and their relationships, and its rural setting. And this is also why I liked Datsunland, his recent short story collection comprising thirteen short stories and a novella. It’s a no-holds-barred exploration of the lives of boys and men. It is not a pretty book, but it feels real, even where it pushes extremes.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) interviewed Orr in one of her early Meet an Australian Author Series of posts. Answering her question about who inspired him to write, he said
I became convinced the human psyche was the only thing really worth worrying about, so I’ve been working at it ever since.
This is true of these stories in which men confront their dreams and hopes, their strivings to achieve these, and their frequent failures. Take, for example, the first story, “Dr Singh’s despair”, which is about an Indian doctor from the Punjab who obtains a visa to work in rural Australia. We are desperate for doctors in rural/outback areas and he seeks a better life for his family. Unfortunately, his welcome – to Coober Pedy, which would be a challenge for anyone – is less than ideal. Indeed, we could call it non-existent. Not surprisingly, Dr Singh does not last and returns home, “disappointed … [but] at least happy”. This is the first story in the collection … worth considering, that ordering of the stories!
The stories in this collection are loosely linked. Most are set in rural or suburban South Australia; all focus on men (though women do appear); and many reference, sometimes so briefly you could miss it, a particular school, the Christian Brothers’ Lindisfarne College. The characters never cross into each other’s stories, however. It’s more that the school represents a certain conservative or inward-looking value or attitude – which makes this a good time to introduce the second story, though I promise to not describe every story in the collection! Titled “The shot-put”, it is set on a farm in 1919, just after World War 1, and concerns a couple whose son, a school shot-put champion, is being publicly listed on a Cowards’ List and has therefore been removed from his school’s – the aforementioned college – Honour Board. It’s another story of hopes (and in this case promise) unfulfilled – and more, of lack of compassion.
Lack of compassion is, in fact, one of the underlying themes of the collection. Had Dr Singh in the first story, for example, been shown some compassion, he may have stayed. In the fourth story, “A descriptive list of the birds native to Shearwater, Australia” a new wife begins to realise that what she’d hoped might be compassion in her husband was something entirely different, and in the fifth story there’s something creepy in Brother Vellacott’s caring for Miss Mary. It all, though, comes to a head halfway through the collection, in “Akdal Ghost”, the seventh story. It’s about a preacher, Pastor Fletcher, who should be compassionate, right? He hires a commercial video producer to make a video showing people what will happen if they don’t “find God”. It features the Akdal Ghost, which I had to look up in Wikipedia, and is absolutely shocking, though, as in several of the stories, Orr does not play it fully out. Much more effective to leave it to the reader’s imagination!
Religon is another motif that runs through the collection, and is behind some of the most violent stories. Besides “Akdal Ghost”, there’s “Confirmation” in which a massacre in 1976 Ireland is set against the hopefulness of a son’s confirmation, and “The Syphilis Museum” about a man preparing for the end of the world. One gets the impression that Orr is not a fan of religion.
And, so the stories continue. Some are more poignant, such as “The Barmera Drive-in” about a 45-year-old man who buys an old, long defunct, drive-in, thinking (hoping) he can reclaim his childhood and in so doing make the (or his) world a better place, and “The Shack” about an aging father who needs to decide what to do about his “retarded” son.
Most of the stories focus on adults, but a few feature children, including the 9-year-old boy lost in the hull of ship under construction (“The One-eyed Merchant”) and the 6-year-old boy trapped with a neglectful mother and an abusive step-father (“The Adult World Opera”). The final, titular story, “Datsunland’, which appeared in last year’s Griffith Review IV novella edition, also features a child, though in this case a teenager.
At 100 pages, “Datsunland” concludes the collection beautifully, continuing the melancholic tone but containing just that little bit of hope to leave us not completely discouraged as we turn the last page. It concerns teen-aged Charlie Price, his widowed father Damien, who sells second-hand cars at Datsunland, and his Lindisfarne College guitar teacher, William Dutton. The story opens with William Dutton, a struggling musician who finds teaching, particularly at that “poor cousin of elite schools” Lindisfarne, stultifying. He hates the narrow focus on assessment and performance, on trivialities, such as the proper wearing of socks, on rules that squash motivation and creativity.
Meanwhile, Damien knows his son is bright, has potential, but becomes increasingly concerned about the relationship developing between Charlie and William. The story leads us on, keeping us, along with Damien, unsettled, exploring the awful challenge faced by teachers in today’s fearful environment. What are the boundaries between teacher and student, and where are they crossed? How can a teacher nurture, safely?
Now, more often than not, reviewers describe short story collections as uneven, which is probably not totally unreasonable, because how can every story have equal punch for every reader. So, I’m not going to go there. I don’t think it particularly helps and, anyhow, I’ve seen reviews of collections where different reviewers identify very different stories as the best or the weakest. It’s so subjective, particularly given short stories can range from quiet slices of life to plot-driven-tales-with-twists. If you are a plot-twist lover, can you equally love the quieter story? I’ll simply conclude by saying that in Datsunland, we, like William Dutton, find ourselves “caught in the middle of multiple truths” – and what uncomfortable truths they mostly are. It’s a provocative read, but a good one.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed the novella and the collection. The collection has also been reviewed by French blogger Emma (bookaroundthecorner) and Carmel Bird (The Newtown Review of Books) whose insightful analysis of the language and style is well worth reading.
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)