I’ve read some of Andrew McGahan’s later work – his The White Earth, which won the Miles Franklin in 2005 is genius, and Underground is just plain fun. I figured I’d get around to the rest of his stuff at some stage, and here comes his first novel, Praise, which won The Australian/Vogel Award in, I think, 1992, which publishes unpublished manuscripts. So, is there any hint of genius in his first novel?
Gordon has just quit his job at the local pub, but doesn’t want to go on the dole, ’cause he is worried that there is too much trackable paperwork involved. Realising, however, that he has no choice, he does so, and continues to live alone in his tiny, run-down flat. Until he meets Cynthia, that is. Together, they lift each other out of their daily, boring lives, and begin something that will certainly have a lasting effect on the other.
There is, if nothing else in this novel, a lot of sex and drugs. Often at the same time. Never have I read so much sex in one novel. That’s almost all Gordon and Cynthia do. Have scary, violent, sometimes disturbing sex. Cynthia is almost addicted to it, and Gordon does his best to feed her addiction, but there’s a breaking point, especially considering he doesn’t particularly enjoy it at all. And the drugs! Never have I learned so much about heroin and how to take it. As well as those little gas cylinders you use to carbonate water. There’s this excellent scene where everyone is high at New Year’s Eve, and the sun is coming up, and Gordon is watching the sun and clouds slowly mingle, while high. Absolutely stunning.
As with all first novels, I wonder how much of this novel is autobiographical. Gordon’s family background – the large Catholic family, the home-town out west, the aspiring writer as a main character – is the same as McGahan’s, and I suspect a great many other similarities will pop up if we continue to do some research. But, it is a good thing, I think, in this case. I’m not sure how many people could write about the life that Gordon, Cynthia, and friends live if they themselves had not experienced it. The descriptions of the scarily angry sex, as well as the things they do while high on heroin – including driving down a windy mountain road at about 150ks an hour – are brilliantly written, and the insight he has clear throughout.
Praise is a far cry from the later works of McGahan that I have read. Instead of being huge on scale, this novel is tiny. Just these two people, and the life they lead, becomes the sole focus of the entire novel. Their inability to articulate their feelings for each other outside of sex and drugs, the things they do to each other (which, to be honest, are a little worrying), and their interaction with the few friends they have, are all carefully laid out in front of us in language that is not pretentious or annoying at all. An excellent first novel, which certainly fulfils its promise – considering the great career McGahan now has.