The Boy Behind the Curtain
by Tim Winton
It’s difficult to think of a memoir so appropriately titled as this unusually shaped – and unusually compelling – mid-life offering from Australian author Tim Winton.
It takes both its title and its cues from the honest, searching opening chapter, in which the author of acclaimed novels such as Eyrie (2013), Breath (2008), Cloudstreet (1991) and the Booker Prize-shortlisted Dirt Music (2001) and The Riders (1994), recalls himself as he once was: a shy and inarticulate 13-year-old who took to secretly pointing his father’s rifle at passers-by from behind the curtains of his parents’ bedroom.
“When I think of that kid at the window, the boy I once was, I get a lingering chill,” he writes, before pulling back the curtain further on that boyhood behaviour and many other incidents that shaped him as a man and a writer.
Winton homes in on that universal, age-old mystery of boyhood, the strange allure of the “gun’s slinky power”. And the way in which, in an era of mass shootings and jihadism, parents and communities have passed on the responsibility of modelling forms of masculinity to the entertainment industry, whose brutish and simplistic examples invariably suggest the gun as a solution to all problems.
This is no conventional, chronological memoir. Rather, it is a series of personal essays in which the 56-year-old novelist attempts to make sense of his childhood and teenage preoccupations, his class origins and his place in the world, as well as the largely unconscious patterns of his fiction. It is in many ways a companion volume to Island Home (2015), his non-fiction meditation on the role of the Australian landscape in his fiction and in the national psyche.
With 28 books to his credit, and four Miles Franklin Awards as well as those Booker nominations, Winton holds a position akin to a seer in the Australian consciousness. This reflects his ability to give voice to the inchoate but heartfelt emotions many Australians harbour for their environment and his willingness to do battle on its behalf.
Winton donated both his labour and much of his 2002 literary prize money for Dirt Music to save Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef from destruction, and his account of that episode and his own transformation into an environmental activist forms a key, mesmerising chapter.
There are tantalising revelations, too, about images and events that play out in his fiction, including his much queried ending to The Riders – along with a confession that, just as his fiction is peppered by car crashes and sudden turnings, his own life has been shaped by havoc.
Most notably, Winton sneaks up on what is arguably the most traumatic event of his life, by transporting us into the vehicle in which he sat alongside his father as they drove home from a fishing expedition and came upon a motorcycle accident. His father, a traffic cop, went to the aid of the injured motorcyclist, ensuring his nine-year-old son would stay in the car by giving him the “important” task of repeatedly pumping the brakes.
So it was that a terrified young boy remained in the car, pumping furiously, obediently, all the while peering through the steering wheel at the bloody scene on the road outside. His fears mounted uncontrollably when, along with the ambulance, the motorcyclist’s drunken father arrived on the scene, hurling abuse and punches at his father. “That scene,” he reveals, “has puzzled me all my life – haunted me, in a way.”
As a child of converts in a “militantly irreligious” country, Winton spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence in a community of the Church of Christ, a Christian sect for which “scripture was the prime unimpeachable source of revelation, and the reading of it remained doggedly literalistic”.
He writes of these “twice on Sundays” churchgoing years with wry honesty and of how, by imbibing the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Hans Kung and Jacques Ellul, he distanced himself from his church and became an adolescent “know-it-all”. Winton left the church in early adulthood but acknowledges its potent imprint in the form of an early and enduring enthralment to stories, to the “occult power of metaphor” and the “beauty and power of language”.
Such power is a theme in Winton’s life and a palpable force in this deeply engaging memoir. Having pledged himself to the service of words at the age of 10, it took another horrific car smash and his long convalescenceto drive him to the page, aged 18, with an urgency that astonished him.
Yet it is difficult to say which comes first for Winton, his love of words or for the natural world, as both seem essential to him. For the author, even the process of writing is aligned to the sense of beauty and connectedness that he feels when going about his other great passion: surfing.
To read of Winton’s need to tap into the power of the ocean, in the dance he calls “the wait and the flow”, is to swim closer to comprehending the wellspring of his ability to harness the power of the natural world to the page. For that is how he experiences writing: “I show up. I wait. When some surge of energy finally arrives, I do what I must to match its speed. While I can, I ride its force. For a brief period, I’m caught up
in something special, where time has no purchase, and my bones don’t ache and my worries fall away.”