To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture.  >

Tournlogo13 Advert

Match Eight 'American Dreams' Vs 'The Promise'

Match Eight ‘American Dreams’ Vs ‘The Promise’ judged by Sean M Whelan

Carey sets it all up nicely with the opening sentence—'No one can, to this day, remember what it was we did to offend him.‘ Not long after that he presents us with a further mystery, what’s behind the brick wall? Two tasty bits of bait on the hook irresistible for me to resist.

Written in 1974 and set in an unnamed small Australian country town, ‘American Dreams’ is narrated by a man with a child’s outlook remembering his time growing up in a ‘stopping place.’ A ‘somewhere on the way to somewhere else.’ Everything revolves around the actions of a small meek man by the name of Mr. Gleason who one day for reasons unknown buys a plot of land on Bald Hill, overlooking the entire town, and with the help of Chinese labourers he builds four high brick walls to conceal something inside. After Mr. Gleason’s death its contents are revealed, which changes the course of the town’s destiny and the residents within. Our narrator presents a small populace not satisfied with the simple life because ‘we all have dreams of the big city, of wealth, of modern houses, of big motor cars: American dreams, my father called them.’

Because I love this story I feel it would be irresponsible to future readers to reveal just what lies within the brick construction on the hill, suffice to say that it was unexpected and joyful and somehow magical. In fact ‘American Dreams’ reads like a Magical Realism story and yet acts of real magic are absent, in the literal sense at least.

Quiet melancholy permeates the story and the drama never threatens to burden the simple narrative. Themes of globalisation, cultural cringe and that old chestnut ‘be careful what you wish for’ are handled with a deft touch by Carey. ‘American Dreams’ leaves you contemplating that the things in life we hope will make us bigger can easily produce the opposite effect and make us so much smaller instead.

In Tony Birch’s ‘The Promise’ Luke is a man running out of chances. His wife Carol has walked out on him, again, exasperated by his drinking and has taken the children to her parents house. She won’t come back unless he shows commitment. He needs to sign into a drug and alcohol program before she’ll come back home again.

‘The Promise’ is the story of a broken and flawed attempt at redemption by a man with his back to the wall. Luke forges a certificate of enrollment and gets drunker and drunker on the journey to her house to attempt reconciliation. Needless to say the meeting is a disaster and he is turned away at the door by her parents. This is where the story gets interesting, following a car crash Luke stumbles upon a Church of Spiritual Healing. While splattered in mud and blood and carrying a shotgun he is taken in and administered with hands on healing.

‘Straight off I could feel their warmth. A soft ball of heat moved into my body. By the time the dizziness got to me, I couldn’t have lifted an eyelid, let alone an arm.’

‘The Promise’ has the feel of a Southern Gothic story but is set somewhere amongst an indigenous community plagued with problems of alcohol abuse and corrupt counselors. For some reason it brought to mind the late American novelist Harry Crews, who Kim Gordon and Lydia Lunch named a band after. Luke’s ambiguous redemption is set through a vivid path of fire, mud and blood and there is no promise of a phoenix rising from the dying ashes but when Luke finishes looking up to the sky and waiting, there is the glimmer of hope and possibility granted just by the juxtaposition of an empty skyline, devoid of death and destruction.

©Sean M Whelan


Sean M Whelan writes poetry, fiction and works for performance. He also collaborates extensively with musicians. His band The Interim Lovers released an album called Softly & Suddenly in October 2010, based on Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. Sean is a co-producer of the successful literary cabaret Liner Notes, presented to the Melbourne Writers Festival every year since 2009. His latest book of poetry is titled Tattooing the Surface of the Moon, through Small Change Press.


BEN: A man with his back to the wall, or mysterious things behind a wall? This is a good old-fashioned wall-match, just like the old days, when great authors would battle each other to exhaustion with wall-based narratives. In this case Peter Carey quickly established the upper hand with his American Dreams, rumoured to be a spin-off of the Hugh Grant film: he employs the dream of being American to deft effect—Birch was on the mat before he even knew what was going on. The aphorism ‘a good big man will always beat a good little injured alcoholic with a shotgun’ rings particularly true here. It’s possible that Birch made his fatal error in focusing too much on the side issues: the drinking, the car crash, the soft ball of heat; and not enough on the core disciplines of short story writing, such as twists and ghosts. Not that I know if Carey put any twisting ghosts in his story, but he certainly exploited Birch’s soft ball of heat. Kicked him right in it, you might say.

JESS: You know what I particularly liked about this match, Ben? That our esteemed judge for this round didn’t keep us waiting to find out who the winner was. Straight off the bat, Whelan declares a winner—and in this busy, fast-paced world, I’m sure Meanjin readers who have things to do and people to see appreciate that they have the option in this round to simply read the first sentence and discover the concise verdict. No pissing about or keeping people on edge. Of course, tournament enthusiasts with a little more time to kill had the option of continuing to read and find out why Peter Carey has bested the wonderful Tony Birch, and it was always going to be hard for a chap whose idea of showing commitment is hitting the bottle before getting touched up by spiritual healers to win against a wee fella building mystery walls on Bald Hill. Although as the old saying goes, if you remember the construction of mystery walls on Bald Hill during the seventies, you weren’t really there. Lucky for you, Peter Carey, you’ve admitted from the outset this story is fiction, otherwise I’d be calling BULLSHIT.

BEN: Yes indeed, kudos to Sean M. Whelan, who will certainly get my vote for the Jennifer Byrne Medal for Literary Referee of the Year. In the end, no surprises in Carey’s victory I suppose: the man has the cold eyes of a killer, and he knows how to wield a metaphor. And so on we go, ever further into this narrative rabbithole, towards final victory!



Tom Cho Vs. Thea Astley in the Meanjin Tournament of Books Grand Final


Second Semi-Final Tom Cho Vs Jospehine Rowe judged by Melinda Harvey


First Semi-Final Thea Astley Vs Nam Le judged by Ronnie Scott


R2 M4 ‘Today on Dr Phil’ Vs. ‘Five Acre Virgin’ judged by First Dog


R2 M3 ‘In the Mornings We Would Sometimes Hear Him Singing’ Vs. ‘American Dreams’ judged by Melissa Cranenburgh