Review: A Couple Of Things Before The End by Sean O’Beirne

Midway through this collection of short stories comes A Night With The Fellas. It’s a transcript of a speech by one Josh White, MC at a club night for “more traditional Australian men.” One of the members has even travelled 11 hours from Queensland, the day after his wedding, to be there (he’s lauded as a hero, although they fear for his safety when he returns to his new wife). But given the times, the men have had to learn new skills, “a much greater reliance on emotion and personal revelation as an integral part of everyday life”. In this spirit of this, Josh reveals he once found his mum’s erotic novels hidden in her cupboard. Although he remembers it vividly, he cannot quite articulate why it had such an impact on him.

Many of the stories in this collection are about those traditional Australian (read: white) men, the ones who feel all at sea in their emotions and the frightening new world of (tentative steps towards) a broader definition of masculinity. In Jack, John “Jack” Vance O’Connell writes down some notes for a memoir, “to set down a record of how it was in the old days.” It’s all rather tedious, until you realise that what Jack is really working through is his grief for his twin brother. In Mands ’88 a boy in year 12 documents his first sexual encounter with a girl, Mands. Her family’s richer than his (“olives. Fancy bread”) and he is puzzled by the welcome he receives (“thankyou for feeding me so I can root your daughter”). But in his wonder in Mands there is something sweet and naive that you just wish would seep into some of the other male characters.

The struggle of these men to grapple with their inner worlds would be amusing, if it weren’t so sad, and had such dire consequences. Later, in the near future, former rugby player-turned politician Michael Ray delivers a doorstop interview to media. While populations in major cities relocate due to extreme weather, Ray promises to deliver a “New Australia” and weed out the “weakness” in society (read: women, “the Green”, elitist media, bad gays, Muslims). It’s the cult of masculinity taken to its logical and chilling conclusion.

All of these stories are found texts, many of them playful. Royals is the 2015 annual newsletter of a group of fundamentalist monarchists, complete with hyperactive use of capitals, bold type and underlining: “OTHER Royal Groups Say We Are Too Much“; on Diana “very beautiful but unfortunately “nuts”. Not a problem now of course”. Footy Mysteries is a precis for a series of books: Wayne and Scotty Moran, footy investigators who solve mysteries like the players who lost their wallets at the Crown Casino. The Poofter Bus is a set of rules among teenage boys for what will get you on said bus (“reading”). This more playful side of the collection reminded me a lot of Wayne Marshall’s Shirl, which was similarly interested in sending up the ridiculousness of Australian masculinity.

The power of these stories is in what is not said, in what they evoke. Scout seems to be an interview, perhaps a witness statement, from a man reminiscing about his time in the scouts. But there’s something off about it, something unsaid that might be the Child Abuse Royal Commission. Nauru is a series of redacted diary entries from detention centre guards, maybe FOI-ed, documenting the utter dehumanisation of asylum seekers on Australia’s offshore prison camps (“you do see the human side of them, and that does affect you. The female one, she has no kids of course”). This unsaid-ness is used to great effect in Nathan and Jordan, in which Jordan becomes enchanted by Nathan’s mum who lives in a house behind the school in a forest and feeds him the junk food he’s not allowed at home, in an ocker fairytale that somehow blends Kath and Kim and Hansel and Gretel.

A few of the stories focus on women, who are also of the traditional sort. Or trying to break free of tradition, as in Homage to Barry Humphries, the diary of a young woman setting off for London in the 1950s, and meeting the vaudevillian on board. In To Shel, Mostly About Mum, two sisters call each other to gossip (mostly about their mother). And in Missy, a woman pleads with an old friend to be moved into onto a private reservation to escape climate-induced social collapse in Melbourne. This collection is the one way journey implied in its title, where conservatism and nostalgia for the past drives us to climate ruin.

The writing in these stories is pitch perfect, nailing the texts and voices they mimic. They are inventive and clever, but they didn’t strike my funny bone as they seem to have for others. For me, they were more elegiac, in their longing for supposedly simpler times that blinds us to the problems of the present and future.

Gay rating: 1/5 for few nods to queer folk

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