Irregular Writings: A ‘Bareback Ride’ through Australian Noir

Colin Talbot’s book The Country Jesus is a novel that follows further adventures of his literary alter ego, Traven Collins, as he strolls through life, encountering and engaging fate and luck head on with grim humour, salty wisdom and many curious asides.

This time Traven (aka Tray) is returning to the country town where he sprang from, a place called Story Crossing in the Flinders Ranges.

In his previous Trave Collins book, The Sweet Myst, our comrade had been involved in a writers’ festival where writers had kept getting killed. In this book, Traven is brought back to the point of his origin by an offer to host a literary festival in a nearby town. All the towns are dying, drought-affected and not what they used to be. The trains don’t run and neither does the river which gave Story Crossing its name.

I have followed Talbot’s writing in an equally meandering way. Firstly through the football columns he used to write for a free local Melbourne paper in the early ‘90s which included a ladder he put together upon which no interstate (meaning outside Melbourne) team appeared. No Sydney, no Brisbane and no Adelaide or Perth; though there was a South Melbourne hanging around the bottom reaches of the ladder.

I then chanced upon an interesting paperback in a second-hand bookshop called Colin Talbot’s Greatest Hits, which totally hooked me. It was a 1977 collection (through Wild and Woolley press) of his earlier ‘70s writing for various underground publications such as Nation Review and The Living Daylights. There was an amazing story about Melbourne’s adult cinemas called ‘Sliding down the aisles of the wank palace’. Another about a thinly disguised Carlton footballer living in a share house in the same bohemian suburb smoking some dope before a big game, and a long investigative piece about Joe Cocker’s 1972 tour that saw police chiefs in each state competing to be the ones who would bust the hard living Englishman for crimes against Australian decency. This game was won by the South Australian police who busted the entourage at their hotel and Cocker was photographed being marched, shirtless, from his hotel room, grimacing in pain as the police held his arms back. Truly remarkable moments caught in hot prose by Colin Talbot.

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There were other novels: Massive Road Trauma, The Zen Detective and Sweethearts.
Writing in the detective genre is always problematical for Australian writers. It’s hard to get the characters to fly. Americans had the films and the novels all feeding into each other. They also had the guns in the streets and the mad violence and the population and the prohibition to help it all along. You could read the stories and have people like George Raft or Humphrey Bogart in your mind. Australian film and writing don’t play or feed into each other so easily.

So if this was to be compared to an American crime writer I would say, to a person who might be interested in this sort of categorisation, that Colin’s flow and attractive lightness of touch reminds me of Lawrence Block when he is writing his Chip Harrison stories. Though Chip Harrison is a teenage boy who has been hired by an overweight private eye to write about his adventures. It’s that playful mocking and saluting to the genre – while bending it to their own ends that Colin Talbot shares with Block. (Though not all Lawrence Blocks novels feature Chip Harrison and they are the only ones that could be said to have a light touch or heart.)

Traven Collins is not a cop or a crim and carries no gun. He does bear traces, in his language and general character, of the bohemian worlds he has endured and abided. No stranger to madness, eastern philosophy, rock’n’roll music, weed, pills or powders. If they’re around and are called for – so be it! Traven Collins is a literary worker who gets by on all sorts of odd adventures that start out as promised jobs.

In The Country Jesus, much as in its predecessor, The Sweet Myst, Traven relates the story sometimes as conversation to his two female accomplices. These are a woman he may or may not have had or have currently or may want a relationship and her daughter who may or may not be his daughter. These bittersweet conversations really give the stories weight and energy. In Colin’s music writing that was featured in the aforementioned Greatest Hits collection it was quite striking how he wrote so much of the female singer songwriters of the time like Laura Nyro and Carly Simon. In these novels there is music everywhere in the general dialogue and musings and asides from our hero as he wonders at life as it comes at him so rudely and fiercely. He writes so well of the power of cheap pop music and how it gets into you and stays in you and can summon you back through decades by just a couple of notes flying at you through the air.

This book is set in a fictional place called Story Crossing, in the Flinders Ranges. Characters talk of goings on and events in Gladstone, Port Pirie, Adelaide and far-off Melbourne. There’s harness racing, philosophy, violence, drugs, sex and weirdness. The author brings a lot of that in to play. There has not been much of a filter applied to this novel, it’s rough and wild. A bareback ride.

@davegraney

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