Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When I first read the story of Larrimah, I formed the opinion that once again someone had taken the stereotypical characters of a bush town and attempted to cash in on the gullible American market. Present in large number were the old standbys: drunken men and women in sun-suffused conditions that reveal bush Australia as quirky beyond belief; so hot and sultry that only Australians, basted like chickens before birth and so tough that death adder dentures snapped on contact with the human hide, had any hope of survival. Where but in the mind of some clod so keen on doing his country a disservice would you find a report of an eyeless crocodile living in a pool in a hotel yard, or a chapter heading like “a dead donkey, fifty shades of biscuit and the problem with pies”?
Definitely fiction, undoubtedly so.
And that’s what distinguishes the combined creative genius of Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson from the regular hack who writes religiously and competently every day but never breaks through the creativity barrier. For the story of Larrimah is non-fiction, a man and his dog did disappear, a police reward of $250 000 was offered in February 2021, and somewhere in the Northern Territory lives a man or woman who knows what happened to Paddy Moriarty.
The cover is, without a doubt, an example of advertising mastery. The pub and its inhabitant (only one as the town is small), the garish colour whose secondary purpose is to suggest both desert and the setting sun over rain-thirsty land, (the colour may represent the sun’s last rays in the sinking life of the missing man – would the authors have thought of that? You betcha!), while the provocative, busy text surrounds the static, stable Larrimah. The rear cover is a nightmare in compressed white on a glaring orange. Yet this mess of nuclear damage contains repeated statements about the stupidity of writing a letter to such a town. That hook will attract the most jaded reader.
Like the denizens of the town, the plot unfolds at a snail’s pace. The only example of speed above a shuffle is the temper of the families that hate each other. Even the one-eyed croc seems to apply a considered reflection before he slips away underwater. As the authors note this place is strange: “You can tell someone about a twelve-foot Pink Panther in a deckchair, but until they’re standing in its shade, listening to the blind croc over the fence purr, it’s kind of difficult to appreciate the weirdness of it all” (45).
The inhabitants exhibit their own suitability to Larrimah’s environment. When the police called, “One man lived in a shed full of junk. Another lived in a caravan at the back of the pub next to the emu enclosure. Another did his police interview in a pair of old undies, until the female officer eventually insisted he put on some pants” (45).
The observation of Detective Sergeant Allen is worth repeating: “Most unique place I’ve come across” (46).
I just cannot get enough of the chapter headings. They are not just stamps stuck on a parcel, they are integral to the parcel itself. They make a distinctive statement about the chapter that follows and they unify the incidents into a coherent whole. Finally, their strangeness does not pour contempt on to the town or people. “A lost cemetery, cane toad curry, and a cockatoo with chlamydia”, is thought-provoking to say the very minimum.
Bless you, ladies! The book is a gem from every aspect.
By Caroline Graham & Kylie Stevenson
Allen & Unwin
$32.99; 392 pp