Music for the land

Dirt Music by Tim Winton. Scribner and Sons, 2003. 411 pages.

Well, dear reader, we are about to discuss a remarkable book. It has been a while since I read anything that qualified as innovative in both style and content, but Dirt Music explores a land (Australia) and a set of characters that qualify as disarmingly “original.” Before I had covered 10 pages, I knew that the frequent encounters with bizarre animals (quolls, wallabys, green ants and a 100-pound fish called a barramundi) would have me making frequent visits to the Internet reference, Wikipedia. Add a wilderness filled with strange trees (boab, which look like they are upside-down with their roots in the air), mulga, eucalyptus (tuart) and a host of deadly snakes, octopi, alligators and sharks — all capable of snatching, hapless, unsuspecting prey from the land. Add multi-colored soil and tropical heat, and you have a world of surreal beauty and menace.

The inhabitants are equally unique: hard-drinking fisherman who have turned White Point from a tin-roofed shanty town in western Australia (circa 1940’s) into a gaudy city where excess is the norm: great, hulking, air-conditioned mansions and yellow-brick villas, yachts, Olympic swimming pools and African safaris — all paid for by a savage, shameless depletion of the region’s sea life. Each day, untold tons of abalone, lobster, snapper and mullet are ripped from the sea and shunted into the world market. Yet, despite the Cadillac/Ferrari and French wine lifestyle, White Point has a curious frontier-town atmosphere in which suspicious outsiders are greeted with blatant hostility (they sometimes vanish) — especially, outsiders who might want to fish without the benefit of local license/approval.

Luther Fox is an outsider, even though he is an inhabitant of White Point. A member of a notorious family of shiftless, drug-dealing musicians, Luther is the sole survivor of a grisly car wreck that killed his wife and his brothers and sisters. Giving up music and retreating to the abandoned family farm with his sole companion, a mongrel dog, he spends his time reading. No one knows that he exists and he might have lived this way indefinitely ... had he not made a near-fatal mistake. He begins to covet the easy money to be had by fishing. Under the cover of darkness, he trolls the forbidden waters of White Point.

Georgie Jutland is an outsider, too, but she has little in common with Luther Fox. A daughter of one of Australia’s wealthiest families, she has spent a rootless existence wandering through a variety of careers and cities. After flunking out of medical school, she finds herself in White Point married to Jim Buckridge, the town’s most successful fisherman. Georgie quickly discovers that she is also a failure as a stepmother (Jim has two children by a previous marriage) so she drinks too much (she sometimes shucks her clothes at inappropriate times – like her mother’s funeral) and spends most of her nights watching old Betty Davis movies. Troubled by insomnia, she frequently wanders the pre-dawn beach. Lately, she has been thinking vaguely of suicide. Ah, but then one morning, she sees Luther Fox’s old truck parked where it shouldn’t be, his dog chained to the wheel. She and the dog go for a swim, and suddenly her life changes forever.

Dirt Music probably qualifies as “a love story” since it contains a series of smoldering sensual encounters that are guaranteed to get the readers’ attention. They certainly got mine! Despite their differences, Luther and Georgie have an explosive attraction to each other. However, as soon as their relationship becomes ... well, intense, Luther is forced to flee into the most remote section of Australia with no goal in mind except a vague desire to find an uninhabited island that Georgia had once described to him.

It is a mesmerizing journey that resembles a trek into a primordial past — a land untouched by humans ... except for occasional aboriginal cave paintings and mysterious stashes of camping supplies. Eventually, Luther finds himself in “an unmapped land” where his physical and mental reserves are nearly depleted. As he abandons the trappings of civilization, he begins to yearn for the past: books, music and Georgie.

In the meantime, Georgie has launched a search for Luther. She is assisted by her husband whose motives are questionable, to say the least. As the two lovers struggle unwittingly towards a reunion, tension builds, Luther’s sanity wavers and the exotic flora and fauna becomes even more surreal.

Read this one. It is “a trip” in more ways than one.

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