BOOK REVIEW & INTERVIEW: T is the debut novel from poet Alan Fyfe. It’s a hauntingly allegorical tale of life on and in the margins. Therese Taylor with this review and interview with its author.
This novel is the work of a poet, and a sense of the evocative, and the symbolic, runs through the text. The story is set amid meth users in the underclass of Mandurah, a West Australian coastal town. Their voices and fragmented relationships are narrated through the progress of a user who starts work as a dealer. His full name is Timothy, but his friends know him as T.
The novel begins with a description of a dead man being carried out of his dwelling. This is a person nicknamed Gulp, a meth supplier and a well known local. His friends mourn him, and his business contacts try to find alternate sources of supply. The presence of the dead man hovers in conversations and interactions. T is, inevitably, shadowed by death.
This novel describes much of the practicalities of life for people who live amid homelessness and a total lack of privilege and amenities. Lori-Bird, T’s occasional companion, does detailed work in making property searches for the owners of derelict houses, and then offering to move in undocumented tenants for cash rents. These shifts and scrimpings are described in the novel, and are an aspect of life in regional Australia which rarely makes it onto any printed page.
“It was pretty common in Mandurah to see people who lived at a certain end of the economic scale parenting cousins, nephews and nieces, or the children of friends. T had lived mostly with his cousins from the year he turned nine, after his mother passed on …”
It is a sparse lifestyle, and for many individuals any available income soon goes on alcohol or drugs. But several people in this community have artistic leanings. Lori-Bird, T’s companion, and some of his customers, write songs and sing. T himself used to have a job at the local newspaper, The Bugle – a sturdy local voice which reports on various events throughout the novel. T lost this job, because of his drug use, and he views this displacement with the fatalism of an addict.
The late meth supplier, Gulp, used to go busking in the centre of town: “Gulp was a poet, muso, shard-monger, late-night theologian …” says one character, although T. rather more prosaically remembers that like most locals, he was “familiar with Gulp’s chemical-inspired antics accompanied by guitar in the CBD, more frightening than profitable.”
Cardo, a fitfully assertive kingpin of a Gulp’s idling friends says: “Everyone wrote a poem. Everyone wrote a poem in their fucken bedroom, alone and crying like a fucken stabbed rabbit. Everyone did it!”
The impetus for creativity is there, alongside shards of asbestos unsafely stored in back yards, and teenagers pretending to be two years older than they are, in order to buy meth.
Alongside these lives, is the memory of the past, and Alan Fyfe interposes some descriptions of the brutality and loss which occurred during European settlement of the region. These past losses, and present chaos, indicate a profound inability to match up the land, the resources, and the lives of individuals, in the stark landscape of coastal West Australia.
Interview with Alan Fyfe
TCNW: You interpose a version of the life of Thomas Peel with the narrative of T and his friends in the present day. I thought that this suggested an echo through history – that one generation after another endure problems which are different yet linked.
Alan Fyfe: With a name like the Peel region, you know that there is going to be a history of violence and dispossession. Most Australian places have a history like the Peel region. If I used the place names in the Whadjuk or the Binjareb languages most readers would not know what I was talking about. But Peel himself was an absolute failure. He tried to bring the life of an English gentleman into this environment and totally failed.
That might be similar to some of what goes on around T. The sense of failure, of not going forward, things which are unresolved and often not talked about.
There is a culture of brutality and it can’t be solved unless it is talked about.
Poet and novelist Alan Fyfe (Image: Supplied)
TCNW: The novel carries on a theme of flexible identities. I wanted to explore that – how T is known by different names, when with different people, and he moves through different versions of himself. I thought it significant that T had been a writer, writing for the local newspaper, but is no longer.
Alan Fyfe: Yes, he has been losing his voice and his ability to express himself.
TCNW: Most of the characters in T are male, and it is noticeable that the women characters get into conflict if they speak out …
Alan Fyfe: That’s true. I put a lot of effort into describing the situation of the women, and the female characters offer a critique of masculinity which is separate from that of class. Inflicting power on other people is a characteristic of what gets called ‘toxic masculinity.’ T’s journey is a bit like the toxic male Russel, who he runs into early in the novel. In fact, later he comes to see that he is becoming the same sort of person.
TCNW: It’s a great novel. I recommend it.
Alan Fyfe: Many thanks. I am writing about people who could not dream of doing things like going to University, or having a share in what many Australians take for granted. These people are not present in most contemporary fiction.
T by Alan Fyfe is published by Transit Lounge Publishing.