Saturday, March 3, 2018

"Only Killers and Thieves"

Paul Howarth was born and grew up in Great Britain before moving to Melbourne in his late twenties. He lived in Australia for more than six years, gained dual citizenship in 2012, and now lives in Norwich, United Kingdom, with his family. In 2015, he received a master’s degree from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing program, the most prestigious course of its kind in the UK, where he was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Scholarship.

Howarth applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Only Killers and Thieves and reported the following:
Page 69 of Only Killers and Thieves is a short one, the end of a paragraph at the end of a chapter, so there’s not much to go on there. But taken with page 68 it’s very interesting, in the context of the book as a whole, in that it contains a critical betrayal (albeit off the page) and foreshadows the violence fourteen year old Tommy McBride will both witness and participate in, the guilt he will face, and the spiritual reckoning to come. Tommy and his mother are on a supply run to the tiny town of Bewley, on the very edge of the Australian frontier, but find themselves short on credit and virtual pariahs, thanks to local cattleman John Sullivan, who is pursuing an agenda against the family, and the local Aboriginal people, all of his own:
Mother wasn’t in the church when he got there. The door was already open and he stepped into the shaded porch then scanned the rows of bare-wood benches that served as pews. They were all empty. Not even a priest about. Sunlight fell in broad columns through the windows, and hanging above the altar was a carving of Christ on the cross. A crown of thorns, blood trickling, a scrap of cloth to cover his groin. As Tommy stared at the carving, memories of the hanging tree pulsed in his mind, the bodies dark and disfigured, flies feasting, crows hunched in the branches above, and now he saw all three before him, strung up in this church, two bodies burned and blackened, the other lily-white.

Out he came, reeling through the porch and into the dizzying sun, glancing over his shoulder as he hurried along the street, bundling into people and searching for Mother in the windows of each store. She wasn’t in any of them. He walked the length of the street and came back again, then found her hurrying along the courthouse path, head down, arms folded, hair unraveled from its pin. He went to meet her; she only noticed him waiting when they were almost face-to-face.

‘Tommy? What is it? What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing—where you been?’

‘Church, like I told you.’

‘I went to the church…’ Tommy said, his voice trailing off. He looked beyond her to the courthouse, its thick black doors in a clean white wall, the little yard in front, the grooves of the wooden stocks rubbed so smooth they shone. He focused on Mother again. ‘What were you doing in there?’

‘Nothing,’ she said, touching her cheek.

‘Why’d you go in then?’

‘For goodness’ sake, Tommy. I was just saying hello to an old friend.’

‘What friend?’

‘It’s none of your business. Come on, we’re going home.’

As they walked past the Bewley Hotel, the men at the railing leered. Filthy and ale-faced, Tommy saw how they stared at Mother. He read their whispers, the little comments they made. A voice called after them, ‘I’ve got a shilling you can make, love. Won’t take long. Put a smile on that pretty face.’

Thick laughter went up. Mother took hold of Tommy’s arm and pulled him close, dragging him along the street. When they reached Spruhl’s store, Tommy unhitched Jess and walked her clear of the rail, maneuvered the empty dray, and both of them climbed onto the bench. Tommy glanced back at the hotel. A couple of men had drifted down from the verandah and were idling along the road. One began humping the air. ‘Just ignore them, Tommy,’ Mother whispered. He flicked the reins and they moved on. A glass bottle smashed behind them. Again Tommy turned. One of the men was waving, and on the verandah of Song’s Hardware Store, a slender figure withdrew from the railing and went inside through the door.
In two hundred pages’ time, Tommy will return to Bewley alone, brutally and irrevocably changed by the intervening weeks, and a devastating truth will be revealed. These two Bewley chapters book-end the long middle section of the novel, during which Tommy’s family meets with tragedy and he and his brother Billy take up with a posse of Queensland Native Police, heading into the Outback on a bloody quest for revenge. There is some deliberate mirroring between the two Bewley chapters, revealing the depth of change in Tommy, and, in the second, setting up the denouement to come. Compare the following extract from page 276, after Tommy has realised the truth about all he has done, propelling the novel to its conclusion as he rides back to confront that central deception head-on:
Tommy stopped in the middle of the road, clutching his stomach, his mouth open in a long and empty howl. He arched his back and gazed pleadingly at the sky, the clouds, at whatever lay above, then trudged up the road to Beau and fell against him, his head on his rib cage, feeling the strength of him, the warmth. He unhitched the reins, dragged himself into the saddle, and circled the horse around. Gaunt faces watching him, in windows, in doorways. As he walked Beau towards the edge of town he saw a girl step from the shadows in front of Song’s Hardware Store. She stood at the railing and spoke his name, but Tommy did not turn as he passed. He couldn’t bear to look at her. The way she’d said it—innocently, tenderly—it hadn’t sounded like his name at all.

Ahead the sun was falling in the west, and in the low light the earth and sky and all before him was red. He kicked on and rode right into it. Into the redness. Into the sun.
Learn more about Only Killers and Thieves, and follow Paul Howarth on Twitter.

Writers Read: Paul Howarth.

--Marshal Zeringue