Fiction of the week

Dream Stuff

David Malouf <em>Chatto & Windus, 185pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0701169427

In the title story of this collection, a middle-aged writer called Colin returns to Brisbane after more than 20 years in England. The seedy weatherboarded town of his childhood has vanished under concrete and glass, but some of its rank atmosphere lingers. The mangroves will soon be "pushing up fleshy roots" and "leathery leaves" again wherever they can, and there are rumours of cannabis fields in the hills where young volunteers are driven blindfolded to harvest "the green stuff, the dream stuff" by night. Australian misery is usually equated with drink rather than weed, but there we are.

When a demented stranger attacks Colin in the street, confusing him with an imaginary love rival - "I know you've been with 'er. I wanta hear you say it" - he is made aware of the "violence that was random but everywhere on the loose . . . It was something he had always known about the place but had allowed himself to take for metaphor. He was being reminded that it was fact." So is metaphor really "deeper" than fact, or isn't it? Neither Colin nor Malouf seems to have resolved the question.

The struggle between civilised order and natural disorder is treated more succinctly in Jacko's Place, where the narrator describes how the town's "last pocket of scrub", a place of adventure and mystery in his childhood, is to become a shopping mall. The council regards it as an eyesore, "openly in communication . . . with the wilderness that by fits and starts, in patches here and great swathes there, still lies like a shadow over even the most settled land, a pocket of the dark unmanageable, that troubles the sleep of citizens by offering a point of re-entry to memories they have no more use for - to unruly and unsettling dreams". The opposition of "settled" and "unsettling" is clever.

Meanwhile, the theme of lurking primeval violence recurs in Blacksoil Country, where a trigger-happy farmer sets off a cycle of revenge by mistaking a black messenger for a trespasser; and in Lone Pine, where an elderly couple caravanning in the outback are murdered by an itinerant psychopath for no reason at all. The killer, his domineering girlfriend and their kids appear in this remote spot barefoot and without a vehicle, but utterly clean and smelling of soap.

There is no explanation. We recall Colin the writer, and the "side of him that preferred not to come to conclusions. That lived most richly in mystery and suspended expectations." Malouf, perhaps being autobiographical, hints that Colin sees the world in those terms because of the absence and eventual death of his father in the Second World War.

This motif also appears in At Schindler's, where young Jack sees his mother taking up with a US airman and thus realises that his "missing" father isn't coming back. Schindler, by the way, is the owner of the beach hotel where the story is set; but although the reference to the righteous gentile immortalised by Thomas Keneally is obvious, Malouf's reasons for making it remain obscure.

Obscurer still, in a way, is Sally's Story. During the Vietnam war, Sally, a drama student, becomes one of the girls who provide sexual R&R for the troops on a weirdly official-sounding basis. "For a week or ten days as required they would set up in a one-bedroom apartment - thoughtfully supplied with candles in a kitchen drawer for intimate evenings and a box of geraniums on the sill - with an American GI or Marine." The story is supposed to be about the emotional damage these "phantom marriages" inflict, and how Sally recovers on a trip to her home town, but the reader mostly just wonders who organised the racket. The girls themselves? Some cunning Sgt Bilko figure? The Red Cross?

Great Day, a charming, life-affirming account of a family gathering on the bicentenary Australia Day in 1988, also turns opaque, with characters making gnomic utterances; but, here and elsewhere, Malouf's fine writing does live up to its pretensions as often as not.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone