Tim Winton is a shy bloke. He’s a West Australian surfer who has list of accolades for his literary work and by all accounts has been very industrious, often behind-the-scenes, in saving the wild, natural spaces of Australia. All credit to him for this. I feel I should love him.
I think the reason I don’t might be the shyness.
The Boy Behind the Curtain – what does that promise if not a great reveal? He’s going to let us in and introduce us to the man behind That Eye, The Sky, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music. (All great reads, BTW, told by a thinking Australian). But does The Boy Behind the Curtain fulfill its promise and take us into his head? Here are a collection of good stories, grouped together as an autobiography, but I’m not feeling personal passion. He’s still a writer telling stories at a narrator’s arm’s length.
The first two chapters, on his habit of pointing a gun at passers by from behind the curtain and an endless ramble on 2001: A Space Oddessy were an odd opening choice, neither seemed to illustrate a thread. I suppose he became an author, so had people in his sights, and there was a good line about space junk “every new marvel is on its way to being landfill” that could lead to his later environmentalism. But do these incidents define his childhood enough to warrant this focus?
It’s a strange place to start.
There are a great couple of chapters on near fatal accidents – a stranger’s, his father’s and his own, which are personal and raw. But then there are pages on his childhood car, a huge chunk on Sunday religion which yes, must have played a big part in his life but could have been much tighter in the telling.
All through this book I’m waiting for something. We hear about his dad – including a rather personal incident I’ll bet his dad would rather be forgotten, we get a mention of a sibling. His mum gets a wee look in. There is a hint of a wife somewhere in the distance. At some stage there’s bound to be a bit about writing books, do you think? He’s “Australian’s greatest novelist” according to the blurb (Peter Carey, anyone? Tom Keneally?) Family and writing – two pretty big topics. So back to the book…
There is a long essay about a lecturer of whom he is rather scathing during her tenure, seeming to agree with his classmates that “at the time they felt they’d learnt nothing useful from her.” But she goes on to be famous and Winton is almost sycophantic in his retrospective regard for this “genteel old lady” (she was 55. Watch it, Tim). We get stories of her literary successes, her book launches, her promotional and business style, her clever repartee. This is the behind-the-curtain writing story we don’t get regarding Winton himself. There is barely a mention of his writing before he is on a cool environmental crusade and is suddenly billed as the “celebrity activist” brought out to bring in the crowds, the bait to get the press along. Hang on – when, how, did he get famous? Is he too modest to tell us that all this time he was writing and getting accepted by publishers, growing a following, receiving awards?
And, I have to know. Where is the love? On page 189 he goes whale watching with his wife, to whom we have not been, and never are introduced. They met at school, she’s a nurse. Call me a romantic, but who you love and how you love and what happens to you through love and how you deal with love’s confusions is intrinsic to who you are. We may have been invited behind the brick wall, but the curtain is firmly pulled. This enormous omission frustrated me throughout the book.
But on to the good bits, of which there are many.
His environmental activism in saving a remote West Australian reef is an inspiring essay. The decency and and camaraderie of those involved, even among opponents, is heartening. He calls it a “lesson in personal prejudices,” and we’ve probably all been there.
Winton always writes beautifully of landscape and seascape. There are lovely passages of littoral regions. I looked this up, it technically means the shore line but he put in my mind an evocative image of that magic place where the wet sand meets the dry, or where the scrubby edge of desert meets the salt pans. “The littoral – that peculiar zone of overlap and influx…”
He shares the aspect of his daily life that includes dolphins, whales and all kinds of sea creatures (but not the wife, children, mother, friends – should I read something into that?). “The Wait and the Flow” piece is a sufie/writing metaphor, and I guess the “curtain” of the title is also a surfy nod – that mysterious space behind a breaking wave.
And the whole book is scattered with read-them-twice metaphors. He found the story of Space Odyssey “a big shiny wheel that seemed a little short of hand-holds” (I take it back, maybe it was a defining moment), a Hillman sedan that “smelt like an abandoned cinema” – we had one of those. Urban greenies and rural business people are “the facially pierced and the bark-knuckled”. I like the indignity he suffers when kicked out the the Coral Bay pub for being barefoot after 6 p.m. There are standards.
He ends with a metaphor of an Art Gallery visit – child to man, which seems retrospectively contrived for the theme. He first enters the NGV barefoot and cowering but years later strides out “like a man in boots”.
Most of these chapters have been published before. As a collection of articles they are interesting, sometimes provoking. But they are a strange choice for a autobiography, billed on the cover as: “A deeply personal book, one that throws much light on the reclusive Winton as a man and as a writer.” It really doesn’t. The curtain twitches, but we only glimpse the outline of the boy.