Editor’s note: Please be warned, there are spoilers below for Peter Carey’s ‘American Dreams’. As the big reveal is an important part of the story, I suggest you go find it and read it before continuing.
Peter Carey’s be-careful-what-you-wish-for fable famously skewers the corrupting influence of Americanisation on small minded ‘70s Australia. Published in 1974, this favourite of English teachers throughout the 1980s and 90s is set in a little town where folk still pedal their bicycles around modest streets, but harbour ‘American dreams’ of big cars and plush houses.
Told from the perspective of an adolescent boy, the story revolves around the enigmatic Mr Gleeson who retreats to his house atop Bald Hill and builds a wall between himself and the townsfolk. When Gleeson dies, the wall is torn down to reveal a perfect diaorama of the town and, more importantly, its inhabitants—leading to unforeseen consequences.
I’ve always rather liked this tale for its classic fairytale structure and the endearing image of the narrator’s father ‘gazing lovingly at the gears of Mr Dyer’s bicycle’. The story is deceptively simple—both charming and barbed.
But if we lifted the roof of one of Gleeson’s well-crafted little houses and peered at the carefully observed detail within, we would be entering the sort of tiny, but complete, world created by Josephine Rowe.
Rowe’s ‘In the mornings…’ tells the tale of an inner-city sharehouse and its eventual demise through a mysterious first person plural. This gentle Greek chorus exalts the scrappy everydayness of newspapers, bicycles, tomato plants and toothbrushes, cigarette ash, empty bottles and cats and dogs. But over and around it all, making things ‘better than they are, lifting them above the seedy and the broken and the dangerous’ is the wonderful and incomprehensible song of a neighbour.
This too has a fairytale quality, but of a more transportative, mystical kind than Carey’s traditionally told tale. And Rowe also depicts the end of a way of life, but there is a lovely poignancy, a bittersweetness, that Carey’s tale lacks.
I genuinely loved ‘In the mornings…’ when we published it in The Big Issue’s summer edition (Ed#396) last year, and I still do. Sorry 1970s Carey, but there’s a new kid on the block. Rowe takes the gong here.
© Melissa Cranenburgh
WINNER: IN THE MORNINGS WE WOULD SOMETIMES HEAR HIM SINGING by JOSEPHINE ROWE
Melissa Cranenburgh is the associate editor of The Big Issue.