Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas have to be Australia’s foremost contemporary writers about men and boys, Tsiolkas doing for urban/surburban males what Winton does for small town/rural ones. Winton’s latest novel, The shepherd’s hut, continues his exploration of males in extremis. It’s strong, gritty, page-turning, and yet reflective too, which is not easy to pull-off.
The shepherd’s hut is the story of a teenage boy who goes on the run after finding his violent father dead, crushed under the car in the garage. He thinks he’ll be blamed, and he’s not hanging around to find out. With the exception of Lee who lives in Magnet – she’s symbolically and literally his magnet – he’s friendless, so it’s to Magnet that he heads, on foot across the Western Australian desert. And thus the adventure begins, except that the novel starts at the end of that adventure – or the beginning of the next adventure – take your pick. Here are the last few sentences of the opening two pages:
For the first time in me life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.
But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.
What an impressive opening. The tone, and thus the character, is defiant. There’s the hint of trials that have been confronted. There’s the in-your-face vernacular language. And there’s the sense of something ending and something else beginning. Where is this book going to go, we wonder, so we turn the page – and we find ourselves in the past, at the beginning, we suspect, of whatever it is that he has just come through.
Soon enough, we learn that our boy is Jaxie Clackton, that his mother had died not too long ago from cancer, and that he is living with his violent father. Jaxie himself is, not surprisingly, prone to bullying and violence himself, but, really, all he wants is peace:
all a person wants is feeling safe. Peace, that’s all I’m after.
Can this angry boy, can anyone who has grown up surrounded by violence, really remake themselves? That is the question.
The shepherd’s hut is, essentially, a road story, albeit one done on foot. Jaxie heads out into the wheatbelt, steering clear of the highway. The exposed, pared-back landscape provides the perfect backdrop for Jaxie’s emotions as he struggles to survive in the wheatbelt-mining-desert country in which he finds himself. It’s not easy to hide out there where “you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake”, let alone find food and water, but Jaxie has to survive, physically, mentally and spiritually, if he is to achieve his goal. Winton’s descriptions of Jaxie’s journey – the landscape, what he needs to do to sustain himself – are graphic and visceral.
Eventually, Jaxie finds another human being out there, exiled Irish priest Fintan MacGillis. Jaxie is naturally suspicious – given all he’s heard about “pedos” and “kiddy-fiddlers” – but gradually a bond, sometimes uneasy but nonetheless strong and mutually beneficial, forms between these two outsiders. Jaxie’s energy and passion provide a foil for Fintan’s wiser more experienced understanding of the world. There is a sort of biblical feeling to all this – a forty-days-in-the-desert vibe – as these two serve out their “exiles”.
There is a lot we are not told. Exactly why Fintan is there is never fully explained (but it’s not for kiddy-fiddling), and whether anyone is really after Jaxie is never confirmed. This information is not important to the story being told, which is … well, what is it about?
“I know what I am now” (Jaxie)
On the surface, it is about violence – particularly about domestic violence and its impact on those so abused, like our Jaxie. But, this is Winton, and while his novels chronicle social conditions, exposing society’s failings, his main interest tends to something deeper – call it biblical, theological, or spiritual. So, to focus on Jaxie, our protagonist, I’d argue that his time in the desert – both alone and then with Fintan – do result in some spiritual growth for him. One of the motifs running through the book concerns goats – why? Well, we could read Jaxie as a scapegoat. Literally, and perhaps even symbolically. We know he’s on the run because he believes he’ll be blamed for his father’s death, but is it going too far to also read him, damaged young man that he is, as a scapegoat for the violence enacted by society? We can certainly read the outcast, somewhat flawed priest Fintan, who, significantly, lives in the titular shepherd’s hut, as his spiritual guide. Indeed, Fintan describes the landscape in which they find themselves as “penitential”.
In the novel’s opening two pages, Jaxie, on his way out of the desert, describes himself as having “hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months”, but, he says, “I’m no kind of beast anymore”. It is both his time in the desert and the, dare I call it, ministrations of Fintan, which bring him to this new sense of self. Late in the novel, before the final drama that brings their time in the desert to its conclusion, Fintan says to Jaxie, “I suspect that God is what you do, not what or who you believe in”. When the crisis comes, Jaxie sees himself as an “instrument of God”, but my, it’s not a particularly pretty one!
In other words, none of this is as neat as we might like. Fintan is a complex shepherd, and Jaxie a problematic subject of his shepherding. There are no simple solutions, and there are no perfect beings, but there are people who are prepared to go through fire (or the desert, as the case may be) in order to come to a better understanding of themselves. “I know what I am now”, Jaxie says at the end, but whether he achieves the peace he believes is coming, whether he, with his “for fucksake don’t get in my way” attitude, is truly capable of achieving it, is the question we are left with. I’d like to think so.
Jaxie, then, is an original, compelling character whose edgy energy wins you over despite yourself. He challenges us to consider how violence plays out in contemporary society, and forces us to confront what this violence does to us. Through him, Winton asks whether redemption is possible and, more importantly, what that might look like. The shepherd’s hut is a book I could read many times and find something new to consider every time. That makes it a special read.
The shepherd’s hut
Penguin Random House Australia, 2019 (orig. ed. 2018)