We meet Tom Keely, the protagonist of Tim Winton’s ninth novel, after pretty much everything else has gone wrong. He lost his job (Keeley was a sort of high powered environmentalist who blew up at an industrialist on TV in a vaguely defamatory way), lost his wife and lost his sense of direction. Holed up in a pokey flat overlooking Freemantle (one of the places Winton himself calls home), he spends each day frittering away his dwindling resources on booze and pills and fast food, bewildered by the puddle that seems to appear by magic in his front room each morning; Keeley is a man who we sense was once good but who is now loitering on the edge of disaster waiting for whatever it is that will put an end to him. His sister Faith, herself caught up in the international banking crisis, and his mother Doris, both worry about him but what can they do? Not much it turns out.
And then – you probably suspected there would be an ‘and then’ but the ‘and then’ is not of the Nick Hornby ‘hey, everyone can be redeemed’ variety – he crosses paths with a neighbour, a woman roughly the same age as Keeley, and a boy who turns out to be her grandson. The woman, Gemma, knew Keeley back in the day, was a neighbour way back when in fact. Her grandson Kai is a curious, inhibited sort who asks strange questions and ruminates mordantly on how he suspects he won’t live to be old. You suspect that this will be a grizzled tale of redemption and awkward love but that isn’t quite the case. It turns out Gemma’s daughter is in prison and that Kai’s dad is a drug dealing scumbag and between them they are trying to prise money out of Gemma, money she doesn’t have. Keeley wants to help but as more than one character tells him, he can’t even help himself.
As in Dirt Music, The Riders and Breath, Winton is examining family in Eyrie, the cradle it offers, the solace and the pain (there are some terrific exchanges between Keeley and his mother, a real acknowledgement of powerlessness, point scoring and love that families so often offer); in some senses, however, Eyrie is both darker (Keeley’s downward spiral only screws tighter as the novel progresses) and strangely lighter, more comedic (Keeley has it in him to laugh at his predicament, he’s Winton’s Mickey Sabbath in that respect). We are not always clued in to all of his actions (he is as surprised as us to learn of some of the things that he has done) and we are not always privy to the choices he makes (we grow to learn about the state he’s in from the views others have of him – Gemma confronting him at one point to tell him he’s in a far worse position than she is).
Eyrie is also a much more urban novel than we have perhaps been used to from Winton before (especially in relation to the last book of his that was published in the UK, Land’s Edge – despite the fact that Land’s Edge was written some years ago) his eye is caught by the detritus of city life, by the crowds, by the mess and the noise they make, by the way in which they cling to and damage the world around them. Periodically, when Keeley takes Gemma and Kai out on the water for instance to find an osprey that turns out to maybe not be an osprey or when doves occasionally land on his veranda, there is a sense of the natural world, but it is a distraction from the messy lives on show. Where a writer like Cormac McCarthy would use nature to show that the actions of mortals are but a glimmer in some sentient rock’s eye, Winton seems to be creating a world in which people can’t find the time to see beyond the contemporary noise. This feeling of helplessness combines with the skein of family life that Winton seems to be exploring in Eyrie, with Keeley’s mother, or Bub, a local café owner, all wanting to help but unable to for a variety of reasons. Winton’s people do their best but they are often inadequate, not up to the job. This is what makes them human. This is what makes them compelling.
Refracting the narrative through Keeley makes Eyrie a different sort 0f Tim Winton novel. There are fewer occasions where you stop, amazed by the clarity of the light that Winton’s words bring (a recent short story collection, The Turning, contains a great many examples of that kind of Winton) – but this is down to Keeley. Although Keeley is a former environmentalist, there is a sense that he has turned away from that world. He doesn’t want to look. He doesn’t watch the news. He has hidden. Within that reclusive world, there are not as many opportunities for Winton to cut loose (there are also more one word sentences, something that doesn’t feel particularly Winton-ish). Where once we might have enjoyed pages of Winton waxing lyrical about some stray weed on the edge of a pond and the way the wind caught it, we now have Keeley, ‘a piebald cyclist, chemically augmented, kneading his own chops in a pawnbroker’s window, indulging himself in his very own Knut Hamsun moment, chortling like a loon.’ It’s not a bad thing – it’s just a different thing. And difference from a writer so many books into his career feels brave and interesting.
Any Cop?: Something of a dark turn from Winton (there are no real solutions offered to the human predicament here), but there is much to mull over and this seems to be one of the jobs of the modern novel so.