Reviewed by Sue McFadyen
Ah suburbia! A fair dinkum place where people look out for each other, a safe and dependable haven to grow up in and spend your life? None of that anymore, according to Stephen Orr in his short story collection Datsunland, where suburban life has a dark side, often more hell than haven.
A newly recruited Indian doctor spends his first night on the roadside in outback South Australia, where he’s been abandoned by his taxi driver on the trip from the airport; a tormented father, unwilling to accept that his son’s name is to be published on a WW1 coward’s list; a six-year-old boy who spends his days fending for himself; a guitar teacher “suffering on his own cross” resents “shitty forms”, and “the way teachers stood in hallways discussing assessment criteria and performance standards, like the boys were goats to be fattened to fetch the best price at the abattoir”.
Stephen Orr lives in Adelaide, South Australia, and has six novels to his credit. He contributes short fiction to magazines, journals and newspapers. Datsunland brings together fourteen short works including one novella, some previously aired between 2008 and 2017. All but one are set in suburban Adelaide and rural South Australia.
In “Dr Singh’s despair”, Sevanand Singh has travelled from India to Australia to start a new and better life, taking up the vacant (again) post of local resident doctor. His family is to follow in due course. He’s touched down in country South Australia: at ‘COOB R P DY’ according to the cracked-plastic terminal sign.
The airport baggage handler wastes no time informing Sevanand that his predecessors at the hospital had usually lasted no more than a few weeks – or was it that long? This helpful fellow also advises that to survive here, people needs three things – a sense of humour, beer and sex.
The story is told in a spirit of fun, and yes, there’s earthy humour and larrikinism. But the locals seem neither harmless nor well-meaning… will Sevanand be the one who stays?
The following story “The shot-put” is also set in rural South Australia, but from here Orr leads us on a very different journey. Sam and Barb have spent their lives struggling to manage on marginal to the North of Adelaide. They are immensely proud of their son Tom, field and track champion at Lindisfarne College in 1912, shot-put champion in 1913, and then off to the Great War to defend his country. But a devastating letter arrives from the Department of Defence –
…I must inform you that Tom has been recorded as a deserter. This means he is presently wanted by the Military Police. I hope that some information comes to hand that disputes this view, but at this time we have no choice but to consider him a Coward.
In the ensuing three years, Tom becomes obsessed in his efforts to have his son’s name removed from the Cowards List. Then another blow – the list is to be published in The Northern Argus ‘as an act of goodwill towards men lost in fighting, their families and the Empire.’
Sam is pushed to the brink by this news, but then hope arrives in the form of returned serviceman Neil, a mate of Tom’s in the same battalion. But is Neil’s story to be trusted?
In ‘The Adult World Opera’ we meet six-year-old Jay, who spends his days fending for himself, neglected by his mother Mel and her abusive boyfriend Chris. The family lives in an unkempt and filthy hovel in suburban Adelaide. Mel and Chris are so self-absorbed, they seem barely aware of Jay’s presence. Except, for example, when he has the cheek to ask for breakfast: ‘You know where the kitchen is’.
The kettle boiled and clicked off. He lifted it, but it was over-full and he had to use both hands. As he started pouring the water into the foam cup (of two-minute noodles) his foot slipped off the chair and he fell. A few moments later he was on the ground and the kettle was on top of him, emptying water onto his left hand and forearm.
‘Fuck’ came the reply from the lounge room.
‘The Adult World Opera’ is a very dark world indeed. The reader feels all of Jay’s dread and anguish in this sensitive story told from the child’s perspective.
Whilst also told from the perspective of a young child, “The photographer’s son” could hardly be more different. Des, Lucy and their eight-year-old son Adrian, run a mixed farming business on sixty acres to the East of Adelaide. Prompted by Adrian’s interest in an old family photograph, Des reveals a remarkable piece of family history. In the wonderful tradition of oral story-telling, Des holds Adrian (and us) spellbound in this story within a story. Adrian comes to realise that “a dad was a valuable thing, no matter where you found him, and if his stories went all night, into the dark and cold, you listened. You never moved. Not an inch”.
Giving its title to the book, the last work in the collection ‘Datsunland’ was previously published in 2016 in Griffith Review’s Earthly Delights – The Novella Project IV.
‘It’s a world of Datsuns out there’ proclaims Damien Price’s Datsunland work shirt. Damien is content enough with his life as a car salesman, even if the pay is never enough and life once seemed bigger and more promising. But he is proud of his smart, talented son Charlie, a teenage student at Lindisfarne College. Charlie is a fairly typical fourteen-year-old, with a healthy scorn of adults, and full of hope for the future. In this work, Orr returns to a favourite theme – the father/son relationship.
The third central character in the story is William Dutton, who resents wasting his days at Lindisfarne. He even hates schools, ‘but where else could a guitar teacher get work?’ For William too, life had once seemed bigger and more promising, when he still had dreams of a career in rock’n’roll.
When he meets his new student Charlie, William sees his younger self. Charlie looks to William to help him escape his father’s fate. ‘Datsunland’ explores the growing bond that develops between the Charlie and William, and the impact of this on Damien.
Orr reveals in an interview with his publisher, that the Datsun is a metaphor for William and Charlie (and I suspect, Damien), ‘plain-looking cars that just keep going’.
Suburbia has long been shunned by writers as a fitting setting for their work, but in this book, Orr embraces it. He is willing to explore beneath the surface clichés, and reveals rich pickings. In just a few pages, Orr achieves a depth of psychological insight into his characters, and a level plot development often lacking in full-length novels. He writes with a light hand, and each story is a page-turner. But each also reveals a core of thoughtfulness.
Datsunland is a thoroughly engrossing read, and on reaching the last page, I felt hungry for more.
By Stephen Orr