Tim Winton’s brilliantly written but ultimately frustrating new novel limns a man in crisis who—maybe—finds redemption. Tom Keely’s heavy drinking and pill popping have led to blackouts that make his grasp of events rather tenuous. When we first meet him, he’s badly hungover and wondering how on earth a meter-long section of his carpet came to be soaking wet. We never do find out.
Keely has retreated to this tenth-floor apartment, his “seedy little eyrie” in the port of Fremantle, after a traumatic divorce and professional disaster sent him into a tailspin from which he has yet to pull up. He hasn’t answered his email in months. His sister Faith, a banker, is worried enough to keep phoning as she jets around trying to salvage the world economy in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. His mother Doris, equally worried, tries to assure Keely that soon he’ll be vindicated and get his job back—a government investigation into the rezoning of a nature reserve may prove that the angry outburst that got him fired from an environmental organization wasn’t legally defamatory after all.
Keely doesn’t believe it, and he tells himself he doesn’t care. He’s disgusted with “the booming state of Western Australia … rich beyond dreaming. The greatest ore deposit in the world. The nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler.” His activist protégés have gone to work for oil and gas companies. Fremantle, once “a beacon of homely cosmopolitanism,” has “calcified into smugness … a boho theme park perched on a real estate bubble.” As for himself: “These days he was just pure bullshit and noise, just another flannel-tongued Jeremiah with neither mission nor prophecy.”
With the deft strokes of a seasoned novelist (four-time Miles Franklin Award-winner, two-time Booker shortlistee), Winton nails both his protagonist’s turbulent psyche and the 21st-century socioeconomic landscape—and that’s just the set-up. He kicks the action into motion when Keely bumps into Gemma Buck, who lived up the hill from his family on the outskirts of Perth. Now in her mid-forties, she turns out to be living on the same floor in his apartment building with her six-year-old grandson Kai, whose mother Carly is in jail “for drugs, assault, and thieving. Not her first stint by any means.”
Gemma is lonely, broke, and needy; she harbors warm memories of taking refuge with the Keelys in childhood when her drunken father beat her mother. So when she determines to get back Carly’s computer and car from Kai’s meth-head father Stewie, who’s been ignoring court orders, she asks Keely to come along for “a bit of support,” which means she leaves him standing outside and lets Stewie wonder if he’s a cop or her boyfriend. (She and Keely have, in fact, been having sex.) This proves to be a very bad idea.
Winton expertly intermingles the escalating menace from Stewie with Keely’s ambivalent feelings about his involvement with Gemma and her grandson. He grows deeply attached to Kai, a smart, strange kid who has terrible dreams and makes cryptic remarks that suggest he expects an early death. (Like that wet spot on the carpet, Kai’s pronouncements remain an enigma.) Keely is afraid that Gemma expects him to live up to the legacy of his father Nev, a working-class bloke turned evangelical preacher who fought for the downtrodden. But Nev had been betrayed by his church, and his heart-broken death left his family poor and desolate. Though Keely too has “tried to refashion the entire world around him,” he claims to be done with that now, and he feels inadequate to Gemma’s demands. Indeed, his inept attempts to frighten off Stewie only make the situation worse.
This complex material is wonderfully rendered by Winton, with a lucidity that is regrettably absent from his charting of Keely’s deteriorating physical state. Not that the author isn’t precise about his symptoms. Keely’s blackouts are getting worse, even though he’s trying to cut back his drinking. He loses consciousness on the street, falling to the ground “through a wilderness of spots and sparks.” He makes a hateful phone call to his sister that he doesn’t even remember. He terrifies his mother with a fainting spell. Playing Scrabble with Kai, once a favorite pastime, “he couldn’t distinguish an E from an F. Ds and Bs confused him.”
It’s fine that the reader is as baffled as Keely by his condition … for a while. But Winton’s refusal to explain—ever—begins to draw our attention away from the development of the story. When he chooses to cap a climactic chase seen with yet another baffling fall, we feel cheated.
Winton is known for incorporating religious themes into fiction, and the possibility that Keely is undergoing some kind of spiritual catharsis is hinted at in a beautiful, scary passage preceding the violent denouement: “It had been coming. This carnage. Since before he even knew the child. It was this all along, not destiny but a chance.” It’s lovely—Winton’s prose is imaginatively exciting throughout—but it’s not enough. Striving to be evocatively mysterious, Eyrie is in the end merely mystifying.