What to say about these two stories that hasn’t already been said by Patrick Pittman and John Hunter? Both harbour a certain grotesqueness (the stories, not the men; the men are both charming) but while in Barbara Baynton’s ‘Squeaker’s Mate’ the discomfort is bodily—smouldering flesh and flyblown squalor—Thea Astley unsettles us through tasteless architecture and the sociopathic, comedy-of-manners archetype of Mr Pasmore, the plantation owner:
I could kill you, my dear,’ he says with frightful sweetness. ‘Not now,’ his wife says, regarding him for the first time. ‘Not until after the guests go.’
I came to this match expecting ‘Squeaker’s Mate’ to have an easy victory. I’d already read the story and thought it an impressive, unflinching work of Australian gothic, notwithstanding the caricatural dialogue—‘yer jes’ ther same as a snake w’en ees back’s broke, on’y yer don’t bite yerself like a snake does w’en ‘e carnt crawl’—and the unnecessary reiteration of the injured mate’s stoicism in the face of innumerable betrayals, and neglect to the point of near starvation.
The story opens with disaster, and steadily accumulates further miseries from there. As the once-capable mate wastes away in a dilapidated hut, she loses what little identity she had, becoming by turns the cripple, the barren woman, the older woman, the sick woman. Her knowledge is limited to what can be heard or seen through cracks in the hut wall, and her agency limited to what can be accomplished by her steadfast dog on her behalf—not enough to keep Squeaker from laying the selection to ruin, selling the well-tended sheep to the town’s butcher, and using the profits to attract another, younger mate. There isn’t a shred of redemption to be found here, and the story ends in desperate thirst and chilling violence, however Baynton stops mercifully short of carrying it through to the bleak inevitable.
Perhaps reading ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’ in the context of the collection which shares its name—a series of interlinked stories, each related by Leverson—would have resulted in greater affinity for Astley’s loquacious narrator. But I read it on its lonesome, and as such I lost the thread a few times, with Leverson prattling away elliptically about redheads on Florida buses and being wrestled away from Crusader Rabbit.
‘I always seem to be explaining how I got where’, he explains conveniently, before going on to explain how he got to be here, on Mr Pasmore’s parvenu pineapple plantation with a ‘blonde bunned’, ‘calmly widowed’ South Georgian who just happens to be studying the human geography of north Queensland.
The Joycean wordplay is somewhat overbearing and, several pages in, I begin to wonder if the most likeable and well-developed characters are the pineapples—battalions of them out there in the dark, ‘huge humped’ and almost sentient beneath a sea of ‘grey metal spikes’. I’m almost hoping they’ll make a move, overthrow their human oppressors. But Astley’s verve for language is ultimately endearing (and possibly contagious) and despite the initial frustration I was won over by Leverson’s familiar, conversational verbosity:
‘I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. We’ve seen it. Want me to conjugate all the forms of envy?’
By comparison, Baynton’s language—at least her narrative language—is more utilitarian, befitting of her subject matter. It is axe and fire, whistle and whip. However the narration is so stylistically distant from her dialogue that it seems almost condescending at times, as though broadcast from some lofty place that her wretched characters could never hope to aspire to: these are pitiable, damned people, the toilers and the shirkers alike.
Astley tackles the class divide in a more direct manner, with the mock-hunt of the wild pineapple culminating in an awkward little gathering with two of Pasmore’s immigrant workers. After some schadenfreudic goading from Mr Pasmore, the pickers Tom and Georgy entertain the visitors with coffee and song. On further encouragement, Georgy produces a stack of drawings, the first lessons from a correspondence art course. The drawings are ‘Kid-stuff. Clumsy. Crude.’ Not at all justifying the flourish and vaingloriousness with which Georgy presents them. But his unabashed earnestness is a counterweight to all of the pretence and game-playing witnessed thus far, and it comes as a welcome reprieve.
‘Does Georgy’s delighted vanity then do to the others what it’s doing to me? Does it?’
It is this flick of the story’s spiky tail, coupled with the fact that Astley never undermines the reader’s intelligence, that tips the scales for me. Astley, by a fritter.
WINNER: HUNTING THE WILD PINEAPPLE by THEA ASTLEY
Josephine Rowe is a Melbourne-based writer whose poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been published recently in Meanjin, Best Australian Poems, Best Australian Stories, The Iowa Review, The Griffith Review, Dumbo Feather, Smith Journal, The Big Issue, and Harvard Review.
Ben: Ah, a fascinating match-up to start Round Two, between two stories who won impressively in Round One, Barbara Baynton’s brutal sledgehammer versus Thea Astley’s pineapple-flavoured rapier. On the face of it, Baynton should win easily, but that may just be because of my inappropriate analogy. Yet Astley was primed for an upset, and it may be that Baynton, emboldened by her first-up triumph, tried to get too fancy, like a cross-country skier who, having broken the world record in the semi-final, tries to do the final in bare feet. For Baynton used words that were “axe and fire, whistle and whip” and this seems like overkill. Pick one and stick to it, Barbara! The reader is left desperately trying to determine whether the sentence they are reading is an axe or a whistle, and this distracts them from the incredibly depressing story they are engaged with. And of course, credit is due Baynton for laying on the depression—it’s important in Australian literature to be as depressing as possible—but she lets herself down with her showboating. Complacency clearly crept in here.
Jess: You know what else crept in here? My hunger, and I am blaming it squarely on the fact that the judge for this round cruelly decided to end on a fritter-related note. Mmmmmmm, fritters… But back to the task at hand! Look, as I mentioned last time ‘Squeaker’s Mate’ went head to head with another short story, I’ve found it difficult to take seriously any character named Squeaker who chases bees who isn’t a pet of some description. So already, before this match even started, I was—perhaps unreasonably—already favouring ‘Hunting The Wild Pineapple’.
Then Josephine Rowe reminded me of a few things that made me realise that ol' ‘Pineapple’ contains a lot of stuff I can personally relate to. People entertaining visitors ‘with coffee and a song’? I DO THAT WHEN FOLK COME TO STAY! Past guests in my home will confirm the fact it only takes a few minutes after they’ve passed through the front door before the kettle’s boiling & I’m rustling them up a nice cup of Blend 43 (I’ve collected plenty of sachets from hotel rooms over the years, it’s like they never expire!!!!), and as for songs… well, let’s just say that the ‘Jagged Little Pill Song Book’ that I bought back in ‘95 is a purchase that has paid for itself a dozen times over!
Wait, what were we talking about?! A short story competition?! Ah yes. My sincere apologies for getting distracted. Even before this round began, Astley’s ‘Hunting The Wild Pineapple’ had already won me over head over feet (<— SHOUT OUT TO THE ALANIS MASSIVE) and isn’t it ironic, doncha think?
In conclusion, I feel like I backed the right horse in this literary race, and it wouldn’t surprise me one little bit if Astley won the whole goddamn competition. You heard it here first!