Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Tom Keneally – a man whose sallies have launched a thousand laughs, whose writing is read by multitudes with fascinated absorption, whose satire has seared the dignities of politicians uncounted – has written another book. Its name? A Bloody Good Rant! The eighty-five-year-old rooster is no Spring chicken, but his crowing is as sharp (and excoriating) as it has ever been with some annoying tidbits that I’ll get to later. I can have a rant, too, can I not?
Keneally’s new book has been worth the wait. It consists of almost 400 pages of…well, ranting, on so many subjects I could not mention them all. He opens with a few sharp reminiscences of the Commonwealth and, as is his way, ladles humorous comment on the valid points he promotes. He argues that he was born into the Commonwealth of Australia with a ‘primitive sense of being fortunate’, the last of ‘a winnowing of European…history’ and loving the land as it was. The wider political scene that Keneally labels neo-liberalism he treats with scorn.
With his usual flare for originality, Keneally devotes a complete chapter to ‘The Ancient crowd: my hero (ancestor)’. After that bit of intrigue, we learn that he is talking about Mungo Man. Keneally’s rant is with the obtuseness of politicians, their inability to recognise the importance of our own aborigines and their significant relationship with this ancient artifact.
The next chapter highlights issues with histories written by Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey. He does not attempt to denigrate these attempts but saves his ire for histories taught during the fifties when facts were deliberately withheld or misconstrued so that all children read ‘white history’ that praised the imperial armies. I’m forced to dip into Keneally’s rant and discipline myself to considering just a few. There is so much I cannot mention: Hawke, Keating, Howard, Gillard, the viperous Abbott, the names keep coming and the rants remain brighter than technicolour. Keneally has been a talker all his life. The rants in this book are so quotable, and cover so many topics, each presented breathing originality…this book is a treasure house.
It is full of statements, lying in bland contentment while really setting themselves to deliver a startling blow to the midriff that fires the imagination to an incandescent state. Statements in which Keneally applauds the magic of the unconscious, “this infinite lexicon and glossary, this constant fire and restoration” (66) and so on, culminating in a judgment I will keep forever on my desk: “…perhaps the most awe-inspiring discovery I have made in a lifetime, and a great antidote for authorial narcissism” (66).
But let’s think about Tom Keneally. He is an exquisite ancient vase, moulded by Phidias, tempered by time, and exhibiting the intellectual capacity of the poet Sappho. But a few tiny cracks are beginning to appear in the face of the artifact. Times and customs have changed since our receptacle was formed. I find Keneally’s long sentences an adventure, expecting, at any moment, waiting beyond the next comma, something exciting that will complete both reader and writer desire for satisfaction. But today’s audiences are conditioned to expect quick resolutions; they favour sharp, snappy responses with instant clarity. Such a narrative as appears in the following long, long sentence is as foreign to modern readers as an original idea to a leather-backed conservative politician:
I had been reading at the time into the frontier wars, research in support of a book I was writing called The Dickens Boy, concerning the adventures of Charles Dickens’ youngest son Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, nicknamed Plorn, who arrived on a station west of Wilcannia and beyond the Darling River in 1868, at the age of sixteen (51).
There are one or two occasions when a sentence loses a verb but so minor a blemish are these that they would not be mentioned in a lesser writer. Keneally has a reputation for accuracy that is beyond reproach. Attributes that make Tom Keneally’s writing definitive are accuracy, directness (he calls a spade a bloody shovel), and an infectious sense of humour. I cannot help myself from referring readers of A Bloody Good Rant to “Enigmas: third phase, grandparency (sic!)”, a happy chapter in a sea of serious intent. Several chapters further on appears “unnatural males and me” a sensitively written, modernist discussion unexpectedly wise from a man who was raised in a culture where homosexuality was never discussed. It is a measure of Keneally’s ability to evaluate the times without personal bias in his writing that endears this author to so many.
At eighty-five or more Tom Keneally is closer to God than most but, if he has any say about that, he’s sure to surrender his pass to the Lethean paddle steamer to someone he sees as more worthy. May he continue to write and entertain as he has in his latest book.
By Thomas Keneally
Allen & Unwin
$39.99; 400 pp