Fire. Even when we live in cities, as most of us do, Australians fear fire. Our legends of fire don’t feature a Promethean gift: the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation tell how Crow stole fire from the Seven Karatgurk Women and in a subsequent melee he was burned to black by the bushfire he started.
Australians know that fire is essential for the regeneration and management of the bush, but our history of cataclysmic bushfires causing shocking loss of life breeds a healthy respect for fire. An uncontrollable bushfire is not something we can ignore, not even in our cities far from conflagrations in the Dandenongs, the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, the Adelaide Hills or on Mt Wellington. Our skies become a dull, angry red; the winds bring the smoke and we taste the ash; we dig deep into our pockets to help out the victims; and we don’t forget about them afterwards. Our bushfires come into our suburbs too, and an urban conflagration like the Great Fire of London seems not just the stuff of dystopian fiction or cli-fi.
Yet every year there are reports that some of these fires are deliberately started. In disbelief we learn that someone fascinated by fire has caused the destruction, and sometimes, loss of life. And then there is a silence: these cases never seem to make it to court, and in our hearts we know that the perpetrator is a child, or an adult with a childlike mind. Someone not able to take responsibility for what they have done; someone the legal system treats with compassion. There is not much that we can do other than be vigilant.
Roger McDonald’s brilliant fifth novel The Slap (1996) is the story of a child fascinated by fire. The slap of the title is the life-giving blow delivered to Tanner Hatton Finch when he stops breathing on his baptismal day, but this gift of life brings damnation. This perverse Faustian bargain doesn’t bring Tanner knowledge, wealth or power, only a diabolical ability to survive.
He has an awful childhood. The baptismal seizure was thought to have been triggered by Tanner having licked some poison, strychnine for the rabbits perhaps, and it wrecks his guts. Painfully thin, and always in pain, he fails to thrive yet runs wild on his parents’ property. Artists distracted by alcohol and episodes of mental illness, September and Maurie Finch have no idea how to manage a boy obsessed by fire and by the explosives too carelessly stored by the workers building the Snowy Mountain Hydro scheme. But other adults try:
The wind changed direction and the fire ran fast. It caught sheep, scorched them, sent them bleating. It licked across swamps where it seemed there was nothing to burn but where flames rose, an orange wall with streamers of black. Smoke parted, sheep lay in paddocks legs out stiff, their hides smoking. Then Joseph acted and was glimpsed beating flame with wet potato sacks and calling for willow branches to be cut and brought to him. Flaying left and right he arrived at where the boy sat hunched on a dam wall with a cigarette lighter clenched in his fingers.
Get to your feet, he said, prising the lighter from the boy’s hand and hurling it into the dam. I’ll teach you to play with fire.
Maurie sat in the cab of the water wagon witnessing a blow to his son’s head, saying nothing more in relation to the matter, doing nothing in relation to his old friend Joseph going as insane as he was, doing nothing in relation to the fire or in the world except to regard its passing parade with a winsome half smile, smoke playing in his hair like worms.
Joseph struck the boy again with a hard, flat hand, pursued him along the dam wall and down the other side to the khaki dam water, belting without a responding whimper, without complaint, with only a tightlipped struggle as the boy hunched away from the hand and stepped in water.
Somebody has to do this, Joseph roared, grabbing the boy by the neck and pushing him into the dam, yelling, Drown for all I care, drown.
It was Ruby who pulled the boy from the creamy clay. Ruby who wrapped her arms around him stilling his paroxysms and muscle cramps. Ruby who stuffed her handkerchief into his mouth while it ran with blood, while his bowels ran too, they wouldn’t stop, they were a tap, a gusher. (p. 32)
Ruby Amos is Tanner’s only friend. Joseph’s daughter, she finds respite from his Old Testament proscriptions in her adventures with the boy. They run wild together in the bush, playing word games and dreaming of strange places. Only she seems safe from his lies, his cheating and his thefts. Only she seems to know what’s in his head, or when it doesn’t matter. But she is three years older than he is, and the time comes when she takes an interest in another boy instead. This abandonment is the catalyst for a terrible tragedy which lands Tanner behind bars with his file marked ‘never to be released’.
But there is redemption for Tanner, and though the motives of some characters remain suspect, perhaps also for the society that intended to throw away the key. The novel spans the fifty years from 1954 in two parts, named ‘Blast’ and ‘Litter’ and the world it creates moves on from the deceptively simple certainties of the rural fifties to the emerging depopulation of the bush and its desolate decaying houses, a theme also explored by McDonald in When Colts Ran. From the misfit parents to the creepy Doctor Bawley McIntosh and the enigmatic painter Ernie Grogan, the characterisation is vivid, even for the bit players like Mrs Tate, endlessly cooking meals that are never eaten, keeping Tanner alive with toast soldiers and soft boiled eggs while his mother bleats uselessly into her wineglass.
Though it pays dividends, The Slap is a demanding book. The third person narration moves backwards and forwards in time, with short, one page italicised digressions into the past and the future between episodes and sequences that are sometimes as long and complex as chapters. This patchwork of characters and events requires careful reading and a good memory. Sometimes I re-read episodes for the sheer pleasure of McDonald’s prose, but at other times it was to find the connections in the plot. That’s not a criticism; it’s how the book is meant to be and it’s appropriate. No one’s life is a seamless coherent sequential narrative, and that’s especially true for the tragic life of Tanner Hatton Finch.
But lest you think that The Slap is a soul-destroying catalogue of misery, I’ll finish up with one of many droll conversations that reveal McDonald’s deep familiarity with country people. Tanner is tucked up in his dressing-gown at night, listening to the men talking:
Could be snow tonight.
You think so?
Dark this early, it’s a surefire sign.
Sleet at the most, said Joseph stubbornly.
His father walked to the window, defeated by a few casual words, and stood slightly stooped looking out into the dark. He tapped on the glass with the back of his hand.
It’s black out there.
Tanner watched the man Terry Spriggs lit by firelight as he squatted on the fender.
I agree with Maurie there. Snow. Bloody cold. It would freeze the proverbials off the proverbial brass monkey.
Pinpoints of sweat dotted his forehead. He clutched a glass of scotch and soda, almost dipping his nose in it.
I needed this. Cheers. Here’s lead in your pencil.
September came into the room and he struggled to his feet.
Missus Hatton, ah, Finch?
You must be?
Terry Spriggs, the one and only.
They had known each other by sight for years but it was a convention of country life not to be acknowledged. (p.166)
Author: Roger McDonald
Title: The Slap
Publisher: Picador (Pan MacMillan), 1996
ISBN: 0330358405 / 9780330358408
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books.
The Slap is long out of print, but Brotherhood Books always has a few of Roger McDonald’s titles, and there’s always the library…