Australians who read the broadsheet press or watch the ABC may feel they know Hugh Mackay well: he’s been around as a wise social commentator for ages. But I had never come across his novels until I stumbled upon Ways of Escape at my local library – it turns out to be his fifth novel…
The blurb intrigued me because I remembered reading somewhere that one reason why the initial death toll from 9/11 had been revised down from initial estimates was because of a common phenomenon in disasters: there are always people who have reason to want to disappear, and they take advantage of the disaster to vanish. Criminals, debtors, people with messy relationships, victims of stalkers and so on apparently walk off in the chaos and confusion, never to be seen again. It seems rather cruel to me, to leave your loved ones forever wondering what happened to you, but the desire for escape apparently over-rides such scruples.
Mackay’s book asks that very question. If you could ‘slip away unnoticed, would you?’ If you would ‘cover your tracks’ to ‘start a new life’ would you do it? The cover art is very apt: a man in a business suit, sitting on a park bench on the beach. He’s looking out to sea, with his arms stretched wide, looking very relaxed. It’s as if his worries are behind him, and he is looking to a bright new future.
It’s not a ‘literary’ book but the story becomes quite absorbing. Tom the counsellor is having a bit of a mid-life crisis. He’s too measured a man to be melodramatic about it but he’s a bit worn out by his client’s navel-gazing. He misses being married since his wife left him four years ago but is taking his time about falling for anyone else. He fancies one of his clients but knows he must respect the rules about professional relationships. He’s treading a careful path between his friends-and-neighbours who have just separated because he fancies the wife too. He has a couple of pals with needs of one sort or another, and he’s very good at allowing them the space they want so that they feel comfortable revealing their concerns.
He seems just a little bit too reasonable to me – a convincing portrait of a prudent man in a helping profession – and the type of man that friends and neighbours couldn’t imagine taking risks or doing an unexplained bunk. (His idea of a risk with his sexy client Myra is to make appointments directly instead of the client making the appointment through his secretary. Risqué, hey?) So given the blurb, the interest in the book lies in whether or not this rather dull, safe man will put a little pizzazz into his life. Will he stop analysing everything just once and do something impulsive? Will he do a Rhett Butler and sweep his mate’s wife off her cautious feet with one passionate kiss?
He himself knows that he’s in danger of ‘losing sight of what [he] really thinks, how [he] really feels and what [he] really wants’:
‘Always responsive, always attentive, always accommodating; that’s me. I’ve become the master of the gentle nod, the noncommittal murmur of encouragement, the benign smile…I know how to play the game and I know this is important work. I’m not quite as cynical as I make myself sound…counselling is big business, and it’s getting bigger. Recommend it to your kids if they want secure employment with a steadily increasing demand for their services. Psychological repairs: it’s a worthy, noble trade. (p 107)
The first person narration, however, began to grate a bit after a while, because there’s a not-quite-controlled (not-sufficiently-edited) tendency to tell everything.
A sudden shower surprises me, and I make a dash for the entrance to the stone-clad Great Hall – one of Watson’s attempts at instant heritage. The shower rapidly becomes a downpour in the manner of Sydney spring rain, and I’m thoroughly wet by the time I reach the portico. I brush the surface drops off my jacket, collect my name-tag, and, fighting my reluctance, enter the fray. (p 65)
The momentum of this scene could just as easily have been conveyed more economically as: My reluctance to enter the fray wasn’t improved by getting soaked in a sudden downpour between the car park and Watson’s faux-heritage Great Hall. I think the reader could assume for herself that Tom would brush the raindrops off, but why do we need to know that it rained that day anyway?
It becomes a tad ponderous here and there. Mackay gives Tom some projects to do, ostensibly to give him some minor ways of escape from his humdrum life, but also to allow for some authorial hobby-horses. At Vroom, the magazine where Tom writes occasional articles to appeal to the motoring fraternity, there are opportunities for characters to explore the irony of up-sizing in the markets (McMansions and 4WDs) when families are getting smaller. At Watson, the private university where he is roped in to support a bunch of old-school academics get their candidate elected as Chancellor, there’s a whole sub-story devoted to woes in the tertiary education sector: the squeeze on student services because of voluntary student unionism; the impact of indicative student voting on academic careers; so-called transparent student marking; favouritism for overseas students; privatisation of student housing, and an evil capitalist manipulating himself into Chancellorship of a faux-Sandstone university. By the time I reached the part of the book where this theme was in full swing, I was beginning to wish for escape myself.
Fortunately things liven up and one of the characters does do a bunk, and we see the fallout. The tabloids behave badly as they always do; the police are intrusive when they investigate as they must be; people are devastated by a loss that can only ever be explained by conjecture. But as the book draws to its inevitable conclusion, it seems to me that it would have been a much more interesting tale if written not from the perspective of the nearly-all-knowing counsellor, but from the point-of-view of the one who did the bunk. The bloke on the park bench at the beach…
Author: Hugh Mackay
Title: Ways of Escape
Publisher: Hachette, 2009
Source: Kingston Library