The writing is mostly beautiful, the characters credible, and the plot’s intriguing, but there were times when the dialogue was just plain exasperating.
The story takes place in a town in the north-eastern wine-making region of Victoria. The characters all seem to have had a charisma bypass. The central character, Smithy, used to be a shearer but now he’s a labourer who’s taking a break from heavy drinking on doctor’s orders. He’s in poor health but still working in a vineyard, doing demanding physical labour and spending his days with the hard-drinking labourers who form the team. It was their dialogue which tested my patience almost beyond endurance.
Win anything on the races? Wallace asks me.
Nope, I say.
I run my finger along the edge of the shovel. More than half the blade’s been worn down and the edge isn’t straight any more. It’s far from straight. It’s crooked all over the place.
Win anything on the lottery? Wallace asks.
Nope, I say.
I knock the dirt off the shovel and put oil along the blade.
You win anything? I ask.
Me? Says Wallace. Nuh.
I show him the shovel blade.
I know, says Wallace.
Wallace finishes his shovel and sticks it in the ground. He takes another one off the tray and knocks the dirt off it.
You hear about George Alister? Wallace asks me.
No, I say.
Jeez, he says. Hasn’t heard about George Alister.
I hawk and spit over the side of the tray and reach back for the water bottle and drink and spit again. Wallace hands me a stone from the toolbox and I start putting an edge on the crooked blade.
Wallace picks at a splinter.
Bloody hell, he says. Hasn’t heard about George Alister. (p2)
And so it goes on. Perhaps what passes for conversation here is authentic, I wouldn’t know, but it wore very thin indeed after a while. I was relieved when the story moved on and these inarticulate mumblings gave way to Smithy’s memories.
Sober now after a lifetime of alcoholism, Smithy begins to confront the way he has wasted his life, but he’s not the only one. His guilt, regret and nostalgia is mirrored by Charlotte’s, a sad specimen if ever there was one. She’s much younger than him, and as he tells her in a futile attempt to jolt her into making an effort to start again, there’s still a chance for her to make something of her life.
Unlike him, she had considerable advantages. His childhood was a misery (I’m trying to avoid spoilers), but she made choices which transformed her prospects and now she has to take refuge from a dangerous relationship. Holed up at Smithy’s she tells her story; it reads like a cautionary tale for adolescents in country towns.
This is no comfortable rural community or tree-changer’s paradise. Apart from the hopelessness of the inhabitants, the weather is malevolent and events are biblical in an Old Testament vengeance kind of way. The overwhelming mood is one of pessimism, and it’s not just Smithy’s recognition that he’s too old and sick to make anything of his life now, and not just Charlotte’s self-inflicted victimhood. The other people in the town are just as gloomy and apathetic, and the only ones with any spirit are the boys whose sole ambition is to learn to drink like the rest of the men.
Despite the sense of wasted lives, these characters do begin to exert a kind of fascination. As Smithy recovers his memories we learn about his tragic history and his relationships in the town begin to be revealed. Charlotte on the other hand in the last part of the novel launches into a loooooong monologue which tested my patience almost as much as the men’s inane repetitions. It goes for 49 pages, a veritable flood of words breaching the dam walls of this young woman’s years of silence.
Molly Bloom she’s not. She’s a dreary young woman drowning in self-pity. I understand what Chambers was trying to do, but I think it could have been achieved in half the number of pages.
Still, I kept reading. I wasn’t sure if anything was going to happen, but I had to keep reading to find out.
Somehow this book reminded me of Camus’ The Outsider. It’s been 20 years since I read that so I can be challenged on the detail, but The Vintage and the Gleaning is an existentialist quest for meaning and its themes include angst, (Charlotte’s), nihilism (the town’s) and alienation and stoicism (Smithy’s). So despite my doubts, this is a young writer with promise, and definitely one to watch.
Now the pub is drowned in the full roar of drunkenness. Men knock against each other. Stools tip and slide and strike the boards. There is the clatter of glasses as Les’s wife puts down crate after crate. The ring of the cash register, the floor thumping with the steps of men heavy with drink, Les’s wife’s voice raised in outrage as some drunk overturns a table and an unsteady hand lets a glass drop, shattering on the tiles to hilarious uproar. A man slumps his head against a wall and vomits up beer and bile and the stench of both. Lips, once loosened, pour, and the voices continue raised, men spewing forth what they have kept inside themselves for days or weeks or for a lifetime and they see only the blur of faces and they speak not to men but to something greater than men and they do not know that it is empty and uncaring. And there are men who talk and there are men who are silent and those who talk do not know what they are saying and those who are silent do not listen, but drink for the very silence, for the silences of their souls. And I was such a man. (p91)
That’s good, you’d have to agree…very good indeed.
Jeremy Chambers explains the genesis of this book at Readings.
PS In an illuminating interview by Kevin Rabelais in The Weekend Australian (Out of the Shadows) Chambers says this about the dialogue:
‘The way they talk in the vineyards, the repetitions, how they talk…there’s so little to talk about. They’ll just drag things out as long as they can. I realised that this is what you get in Beckett’s plays’. ( Out of the Shadows in The Weekend Australian, Aug 14-15, 2010)
Chambers worked in vineyards when he was younger, so he knows the lifestyle.
‘Those summers, I spent the life of a labourer. You work during the day. You go to the pub and drink until teatime. Friday nights, everyone would get very, very drunk. And Sundays, you start drinking in the morning and drink all day.’
He also talks about how the labourers ‘ lives were ‘working and drinking and Tattslotto.’ So while country folk may perhaps demur, it sounds as if my reservations about the authenticity of his characters’ dialogue were unfounded.
Chambers also says that he was influenced by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Alex Miller.
Author: Jeremy Chambers
Title: The Vintage and the Gleaning
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.