One of the best features of the Text Classics list is the reprinting of several Miles Franklin Award winners. Charged with awarding the best novel each year that describes “Australian Life in any of its phases”, there is a lot to be gained by reading past winners. They tell us about Australia at the time they were written, about what people thought “Australia” meant, and what style of literature was popular at the time.
In the small Southern Cross Hotel in Northmead, Western Sydney, a group of men come to drink. Though they all come from different background, they are connected by their common goal – to ride the glass canoe, and get drunk to forget their problems. Our narrator, Meat Man, guides us through their stories and their tales, offering his own take on this tribe of men, and the lengths they will go to in order to protect their way of life.
Gerald Murnane tried to give us a glimpse into a sub-culture of the Australian continent in his novel The Plains. David Ireland does the same thing in The Glass Canoe but, to my mind, far more successfully. Even without the Sibley, the PhD candidate, Meat Man’s observations of his fellow drinkers are an insight into this world, and act almost as a mini ethnography of a certain time and place. With that in mind, he has chosen the perfect structure for such an endeavour. Instead of trying to closely track this group of characters evolve over a period of time, Meat Man provides us with short stories – flash fiction, really – about the goings on of the hotel. They are in vaguely chronological order, so the repercussions of people’s actions are felt, though not fully explored. This is not a criticism – simply a statement of fact. There are longer chapters that deal with whole sagas, and there are others that are less than half a page. I like a lot of these shorter ones, many of which are not stories so much as random thoughts from Meat Man, about life, the universe and beer.
Intrinsically tied to these ideas of masculinity and Australian-ness is violence. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but in a “we’re men and we sort our shit out by hitting each other” kind of way. Almost every patron of the Southern Cross at some stage uses violence as a way of sorting out one’s issues with another person. Much of it seems half-arsed, a kind of necessary evil that must be performed because it is – in this tiny case – the culturally accepted way of doing this. Pride is often on the line, though never over anything vitally important. It is not until the final sequence of the novel – which I won’t spoil here – that this violence becomes a key player in these peoples’ way of life.
What a great character Meat Man is. In many ways the spokesman of his tribe, he seems to have a greater sense of self-awareness than many of the other frequenters of the Southern Cross. He can have a conversation with Sibley and understand what is happening, and not begrudge Sibley what he is doing – as long as no one else finds out. On the flip side, he can also have a conversation with Alky Jack, the designated old man/elder/philosopher of the group, who has seen fads come and go, and has a lot of pessimistic life advice to hand out, should it be necessary. More than any other character in the pub, he is the one who breaks down the stereotype of the drinker as an unintelligent, unthinking yobbo, concerned only with drinking cheap beer, getting off with some woman he doesn’t know and lazing around at work. There’s a beautiful moment when Meat Man asks his way-too-out-of-his-league girlfriend a rhetorical question about records, not really wanting an answer. When she tells him the simple answer, he is disappointed with the knowledge he receives, not because he feels dumb for asking, but because he enjoyed the magic of the mystery. Meat Man sees the beauty in the unknown, and seems content to remain – I don’t want to use the word “ignorant” – blissfully unaware of the inner mechanics of everything around him. He can appreciate the world around him without having to understand what it means.
As with all good novels about a certain time and a certain group of people, the march of progress and new ideas is the enemy knocking at the gates in The Glass Canoe. When the Southern Cross Hotel is eventually bought out by a new owner who wants to turn it into a more respectable establishment, the current regulars are at first simply bemused by his new rules. But when they come in to full effect – like banning anyone who is caught fighting – they don’t know what to do. At the same time, other people are invading their territory, and everything around them is changing. The way in which they deal with this is telling, and Thomas’ words have never been more appropriate.
Even though this was written 36 years ago, it’s surprising just how relevant and contemporary . The stereotypical “Australian male” is certainly a dying breed. I’m not for a minute suggesting that’s an intrinsically bad thing, but it does give us pause to think about what this typical “Australian male” is, and whether we still want or need it. Ireland certainly presents us with a romanticised view of masculinity, but it never turns to sentimentality.