Wake in Fright all over again

Grant felt himself exposed in no man’s land. There was no avenue of retreat and the enemy was invisible and unassailable. His supports had been dissipated, his arms were lost. He could not even burrow into the ground to hide.

It’s perhaps a rite of passage for any Australian reader to endure Wake in Fright, the 1961 condemnation by Kenneth Cook of the outback and its inhabitants. It’s harsh, unsettling, a new (at the time) insight into the coastal vs. inland cultural disparities inherent in the so-called Australian way of life.

In the novel, John Grant, a Sydney-sider unhappily teaching primary schoolers in an outback town 1200 miles inland and consisting of little more than a pub and a railway station, is excited to be heading back to the coast for a six-week holiday. His journey home involves a stop-over in Bundanyabba, a small town in the middle of nowhere, yet with pubs, hotels, people, enough to get by. Happy to check out the local scene for his one night in town, Grant hits the pubs – confident, content, ready for his break to begin. And then, on a gambling whim, Grant loses everything. He finds himself trapped in this outback wasteland the locals call the ‘Yabba.

Grant, we learn early on, deplores the outback lifestyle, and the people that, by choice, populate and thrive within it. Soon, though, reliance on those people becomes his only means of survival. But at what cost? Grant’s ‘Yabba stay becomes a trek into his own personal hell – educated and well-to-do, Grant soon finds himself shooting ‘roos, drinking endless slabs of beer, skinning his own wildlife catches for food, and contemplating what to do with the last remaining bullet in his rifle – the gun a gift of the locals.

It’s a wonderful set up – stranger in a strange land goes to extremes to get by, discovers his weaknesses, battles his demons while flailing in hell. And Cook puts Grant through the wringer. It’d be giving too much away to describe exactly what fun amounts to for the local ‘Yabba yobbos who befriend Grant on his second night in town. Grant’s most horrific experiences, though, occur in the company of Doc Tydon, an educated man rather like Grant himself, an incongruity central to the book’s themes of class and culture, freedom and choice. Tydon is aware of Grant’s outback prejudice, and stirs up the snobbery in him whenever he can, cleverly using it to draw Grant into some seriously awful undertakings. Grant endures it all; ultimate desperation, you know, can make us do crazy things.

The book is a rite of passage because it’s a view into a different part of Aussie life, the other, other side of the Sun, Sand, and Surf mystique. Or even the croc-hunter, man on the land ideal. It’s key, though, the distinction Cook makes between those lifestyles, and how so many of us don’t experience those other sides, at least not fully enough to grasp the customs of each. As a rural dweller most of my life, I can’t claim to know the first thing about the surf culture in Sydney or the fun park paradise of coastal Queensland. I’m as lost as Grant in such places. On the other side, too, I’ve smiled to myself at the awkwardness of the city dweller in the sticks.

These distinctions aren’t specific to Australia; everywhere has its Otherness – north and south, east and west, city and country. Cook’s observations of these differences in this country give his book authenticity. He gleaned much as a journo in rural Broken Hill, the town on which Bundanyabba is said to be based. Grant, for instance, is consistently surprised when men offer to buy him beers – this is the ultimate favour in outback Oz, and Grant feels he owes these men who give and give for no reason other than to quench another man’s thirst (one of his first mistakes).

And when Grant, drunk or tired or just plain full refuses the offer, his refusal is met with disdain. Country folks, apparently, take a refusal to be bought a beer as the ultimate dismissal. I laughed at this notion because it’s so, so true. But while the book aptly describes the isolation and inwardness of such communities, it is still a dramatization in the extreme. As a rural Australian, it’s difficult not to want to defend the tight-knit-ness of such a community, and the informal approach to, well, everything, as a sign, perhaps, of a freer existence, not a stupid one that knows no better. Or perhaps, I just don’t want to know if the outback indeed has such power to utterly destroy a man and his sensibilities. Everyone’s version of hell is their own, I guess.

Still, the book managed to scare me – I finished it the day before a scheduled flight across that mighty expanse from southern Melbourne up to Darwin, at its tippy-top. With no idea what to expect from that rural city smack bang in its own middle of nowhere, I wondered what I might do if my friends didn’t collect me from the airport, if somehow I left my bag on a bar counter as I once did with my Passport in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What would I do? Where would I go? I’d figure it out, no doubt, after a beer or two… Someone’d get the tab, that I know for sure.

Wake in Fright was originally published in 1961, and was reissued in June by Text Publishing to coincide with the re-release of the 1971 film version directed by Ted Kotcheff.