I’ve read it twice now, but I still haven’t really got my thoughts together on Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.
The first read I was in page turner mode and just chasing the story to its end, but after getting there I wanted to read it again to savour some of the insights Winton offers on the struggle to be a good man in a world that is often against you.
Whatever else he is gifted at by way of writing there’s no question Winton can choose some wonderful names for his characters. Mort Flack, Quick Lamb and Pikelet are just a few, but in his most recent work Jaxie Clackton meets Fintan McGillis and both are as wonderful, colourful characters as their names would suggest.
Jaxie is a broken, angry kid from a one horse town in the mid west of WA, whose mum has died leaving him with a violent and screwed up alcoholic father who he describes like this:
“He wouldn’t give you the sweat off his balls, the old Captain, but when it come to dishing out a bit of biff when you weren’t looking, well, then he was like f…ing Santa.”
As the story begins Jaxie comes home to find his abusive father dead under his ute. Being a tightarse the old man had tried using the kangaroo jack for his mechanical work instead of axel stands, but the car had tumbled on him and crushed him. While everyone in town hated him, Jaxie fears he will be blamed for the death and so hits the road on foot bound for ‘Magnet’ where his girlfriend (and cousin…) lives, hoping to escape the madness and find a proper life.
He is a badly broken kid – but a kid with hopes for a better life – a normal life – even an appearance of a normal life – but he doesn’t know how to get there.
His journey takes him across the Mid West salt flats where he discovers an old hut with its one inhabitant – Fintan MacGillis, a ‘defrocked’ priest who has been dropped out here for his crimes (we never find out what they were – but Winton makes the point of telling us he wasn’t a pedophile) and has lived alone now for years with only the occasional food drop as human contact.
MacGillis is a good man – but also a flawed man and the remainder of the story explores the relationship between these two. Jaxie is cagey, suspicious and relates to MacGillis like a dog that has been kicked too many times. MacGillis seems at ease with himself – settled in his identify and with no need to impress or win Jaxie over. There is no posturing with MacGillis – he is too old to be bothered, but he seems to know what Jaxie needs – a man who will do the righty by him and not screw him over – someone who will listen and not judge – who will ‘be there’ and put up with his shit – and Jaxie dishes out a fair amount of it…
I remember once buying a rescue dog on Gumtree and seeing this timid, frightened dog come alive as it realised it was safe and it was loved. Its that kind of slow burn that we see in Jaxie as he relates to MacGillis. It seems Winton has been doing some thinking and writing around the idea of ‘Toxic Masculinity’ and this novel is one of his foils to the devastating brokenness we see in so many young men.
Winton describes what he sees happening with young men:
Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean. As if there’s only one way of being a bloke, one valid interpretation of the part, the role, if you like.
There’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism. And it grieves me to say it’s not just men pressing those kids into service.
These boys in the surf. The things they say to me! The stuff I hear them saying to their mates! Some of it makes you want to hug them. Some of it makes you want to cry. Some of it makes you ashamed to be a male. Especially the stuff they feel entitled or obliged to say about girls and women.
What I’ve come to notice is that all these kids are rehearsing and projecting. Trying it on. Rehearsing their masculinity. Projecting their experimental versions of it. And wordlessly looking for cues the whole time. Not just from each other, but from older people around them, especially the men. Which can be heartbreaking to witness, to tell you the truth. Because the feedback they get is so damn unhelpful. If it’s well-meant it’s often feeble and half-hearted. Because good men don’t always stick their necks out and make an effort.
Winton’s picture of the broken teenage boy is as tragic as it is accurate – the pressure to conform – to ‘renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean’ – or as he puts it so well ‘to join the Shithead Army’ and continue to enforce the destructive culture they have grown up in.
This is tragic stuff he is writing about and if it were a piece of non-fiction it would be a lament about the state of masculinity in our culture today. I’ve also sat in the surf and heard those same conversations, and the unashamed misogyny he describes .I’ve literally paddled away at times because I’ve been at a loss for what to say and all I’ve had left in me was rage.
I’ve had a few conversations with friends about this book and several times found myself fighting back tears because I’ve been so close to the impact of this abuse on a kid like Jaxie and I’ve seen someone fighting thru, trying to be a ‘good man’, but all the time having to resist the script that is so embedded in their psyche. There have been days this summer where I have felt like a MacGillis type listening silently as the vitriol and anger spills out, as the rehearsed script gets enacted, but then listening more deeply to the raw pain of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘that bloke’. Its broken my heart at times.
I’ve had someone suggest the ending of the book is unsatisfying, as if he got bored and just wound it up so he could move on to something else, but I found the ending every bit as powerful as I am guessing it was intended.
Read on if you wish… it might spoil it for you…
You see in that critical moment MacGillis doesn’t let him down – he doesn’t give him up. MacGillis – for all his flaws does the right thing by Jaxie at the cost of his own life – and Jaxie sees and experiences that a new way is possible.
You don’t have to be a selfish prick to be a man – you can be a good, kind, gentle, courageous man. I love that Winton has wrapped this message in such a raw and brutal story because it highlights the beauty of MacGillis sacrifice. In the end the reality is we are all broken but we still get to choose how we deal with that brokenness, but if you’ve never seen an example of a better way then you are stuck. I get the sense this novel is ‘for the boys’, the Jaxie Clackton’s of Australia (and elsewhere) who need men in their lives who will show them a different way to live.
MacGillis doesn’t ever get preachy – but his life speaks loud to Jaxie. There is another way to be a man.