Set in the satirically named town of Allbut, whose nearest large town is the equally satirically named Mainchance, Thea Astley’s An item from the late news is framed by the story of a man who comes to the town, fearful of “the atom bomb”, and wanting to live a quiet – sheltered, you might say – life.
Wafer is this man, and the story is narrated, from the perspective of ten years after the events, by townswoman Gabby. Introducing the story, she tells us that she was living at the coast when he arrived for “his sad little attempt at reclusion”, and goes on to say that
I reckon now, sprawled on my day-bed guilt, that … the town wasn’t really different from anyplace else except that its final actions become more redly horrible as I think about them.
This tells us much, that the story is not going to end well, that Gabby is implicated, and that Allbut is “anyplace”. It focuses our mind less on what’s going to happen, and more on how and why things go badly. This being Astley, the answers lie in small-mindedness, cowardice, brutality – and, in this story in particular, in greed. It is greed which provides the impetus for the denouement, but along the way, we see sexism, racism, and machismo running amok, all of which lay the groundwork for the behaviour that brings about the end.
Allbut is “anyplace”, one of hundreds of towns set in “landscape skinned to the bone”. It’s a “nothing” town, or, alternatively and ironically, “a clean and decent town”, “a caring town”. It has “all” the obvious things – people, farms, cemetery, pub, war memorial, police – “but” what you really need, kindness and generosity. Into this town comes the outsider, Wafer. Hippie-like in dress and behaviour, “he smiles at children, blacks, old gummy folk. He doesn’t count his change.” Indeed, Gabby tells us, he is “too friendly with the blacks. The town hates that.” He is too kind, too generous, but is also afraid. Having seen his father blown up before his eyes during the war, and having followed the Hiroshima attack, he has come to Allbut to build a bomb shelter.
Narrator Gabby, although of the town, is also an outsider, also a misfit. She has never quite fit with normal “squatting class” expectations, couldn’t be “the daughter of their Sunday social page dreams”. An artist by trade, she’d painted “the very heart of boredom”, albeit unrecognised by her buyers. After failed relationships, institutionalisation for a mental breakdown, and overseas travel, she returns to town, still bored and looking for love. She falls for Wafer, and starts painting again – well, drawing, anyhow. But, she tells us – ominously – “this whole horrible canvas will have the detail of a Brueghel and the alarm of Goya.”
Allbut is peopled with several characters: loner Moon with “the trigger-quick temper”, Sergeant Cropper, Councillor Brim, Smiler Colley and his teen daughter Emmeline, Headmaster Rider and son Timothy, the regularly mentioned but rarely seen (of course) Indigenous woman Rosie Wonga, and Doss (with “blonde hair set in jazz age waves”) and her man Stobo. Karen Lamb, in her Astley biography Inventing the weather, writes about Astley’s use of music: “A character’s mind might be full of classical music – to show an evolved intellect – but jazz was better to bring out a character’s exuberance and refusal to follow convention”. Doss, then, is one of the positive characters in the book, though she has little power to affect the outcome.
An item from the late news is a slim volume – at 200 pages in my edition – but through irony, foreshadowing, repetition, and evocative menace-laden language, Astley builds her story painstakingly but irrevocably to its conclusion. Sexual violence – first against shop dummies, then an assault on Emmeline – sets the stage, but it’s Wafer’s gemstone which captures the attention of the men in the town. It is then that the brutality really starts to build, and we know, even if we’d hoped before, that this really will not end well.
The novel is Astley’s 8th of 15, that is, it’s slap bang in the middle of her fictional oeuvre. By the time she wrote it, her broader themes were well established. These include concern about the Americanisation of Australian culture, the negative influence of television, rabid commercialisation and development (“Sunshine of the vanished sand … the high-blood pressure of the high rise”), poverty and social inequity, not to mention racism and sexism. She fears for the “nothingness” that she sees characterising people’s lives; she rails against what Wafer calls “this blinkered world”; and she exposes her ultimate truth that, as Wafer again says, “we all fail … we fail each other”.
You could also say, though, that there is a cliche at the heart of this story, that of the woman scorned, because although it’s the men of the town who are the most brutal, it’s Gabby who fails her big moment. However, she is such a complex creation that this is not how the novel reads. Instead, by having the damaged Gabby operating as both observer and actor in the events, Astley subtly subverts that trope – and encourages us to be generous.
It was in her review of An item from the late news, that Helen Garner described Astley’s writing as “heavy-handed, layered-on, inorganic, self-conscious, hectic and distracting” and wrote that “this kind of writing drives me beserk”. If you know the writing styles of these two writers, this will make sense, but I suspect Garner, who had a long relationship with Astley, came to appreciate her work. Certainly, the language could be seen as “heavy-handed, layered-on”, but I love its evocativeness and power, the richness of her allusions, the succinct yet poetic way in which Astley can convey an idea. Even the title conveys a punch. It’s thrilling to read.
An item from the late news is quintessential Astley. It offers an unflinching look into the heart of small-minded Australia, and finds much to disturb us. And that is the value of reading literature like this.
An item from the late news
Ringwood: Viking, 1999 (Orig. ed. 1982)