Book Review – 1988 by Andrew McGahan
1988 is McGahan’s second novel and prequel to his Vogel award-winning Praise. It’s written in the same straightforward style, with the same frankness and absence of guile, and with a similar sense of narrative drive. Exactly where this narrative drive comes from is a mystery to me, as there’s nothing especially interesting about the events of 1988. Despite this, I managed to rip through the book in around five hours.
We are reintroduced to Praise’s protagonist, Gordon, at an earlier stage of his life. He is living in a share house with an increasingly large number of Chinese migrants, and working part time in a bottle shop. This is familiar terrain for readers of Praise. Early on, Gordon decides to take up his friend Wayne’s offer of a six month stint at a lighthouse in the Northern Territory. I should also mention that Brisbane is in preparation for the Bicentennial celebrations. Gordon and Wayne are an unlikely duo – Gordon is depressive, straight-forward and competent, and Wayne is moody, artistic and suave. Gordon is supposed to be a writer and Wayne a painter, but neither of them get a great deal of work done in this book.
The first few chapters detail Gordon and Wayne’s road trip from Brisbane to Darwin. Nothing especially interesting happens. Upon arrival at Darwin, they discover that they will have to share the job as weather station workers at Cape Don, which is a remote part of NT. There seems to be some kind of sexual feeling between the two young men, but nothing comes of it. Gordon spends a night being jealous that Wayne is apparently off with a couple of young backpackers, but again, nothing comes of it. Finally they make it to Cape Don, where they will work for six months.
Things start off fairly promisingly, as the job is easy, but it isn’t long before isolation and boredom begin to eat away at Gordon, Wayne, and the incumbent bushranger Vince. Things fall into a pattern of very heavy drinking and general slobbery. Gordon’s physical and mental wellbeing deteriorates as the novel progresses, a pattern that mirrors Praise. McGahan seems to be saying that this kind of lifestyle is toxic in the extreme, and yet no one seems to care enough to do anything about it.
Gordon even takes up smoking, despite his chronic asthsma. This is self destructive and nihilistic, and yet McGahan offers no real commentary on the right or wrong of the situation. This is both a strength and weakness: a strength in that McGahan is able to describe a certain lifestyle and state of mind extremely accurately; and a weakness in that, as a consequence, the book seems to lack a moral compass. Gordon’s life becomes increasingly wretched. His writing has stagnated, his body is falling apart, and his mind is a shambles. This mirrors the ending of Praise, but here there is a small glimmer of hope in the form of the trip to Cobourg with Allan Price and the rest of the Gurig clan. McGahan isn’t one to ram a theme down your throat, but he seems to be suggesting that the lifestlyle (and perhaps spirituality) of the Aboriginals is preferable to the ennui and self-destruction of the whites.
It isn’t long before Gordon has managed to upset the Gurig clan, however. The one thing I’ll say for this book is that there are no illusions harboured within. This is gritty realism at its…well, its grittiest. Nor is there anything approaching pretentiousness. Never is a false note struck. On the other hand, this is unrelentingly depressing. There’s no redeeming value in Gordon’s life. Nothing to be optimistic about. 1988 ends with Gordon meeting Cynthia, who we already know well from Praise. So there’s nothing good to come in the immediate future. Overall, it would appear that 1988 is a lesser book than Praise. Same style, same stark truthfulness, same nihilism. There’s no development between the two books, almost to the extent that it would appear that McGahan had painted himself into a corner. I will be interested to read Last Drinks next, to see how the author extricated himself from writing about (presumably) his own life in the bleakest of fashions.