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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Recommendation: Tony Birch SHADOWBOXING (Scribe, Melbourne, 2006) 178 pages

With the recent release of his latest book of short stories Common People, Melbourne writer Tony Birch has consolidated his position as one of the best fiction writers in Australia. If you are new to Birch’s work the obvious place to start with is his first book SHADOWBOXING (2006), which is a collection of ten self contained but closely linked short stories, set mostly in inner city Melbourne during the 1960s.

SHADOWBOXING is a coming-of-age story narrated by Michael Byrne told from the perspective of a young adult looking back at his life in Fitzroy, Carlton and Richmond. The first eight short stories cover his years while at school whereas the last two stories “Redemption” and “The Haircut” act as a sort of epilogue ten years after the events described in the earlier stories have taken place.

The sad, tough family life of the Byrne working class family is the central focus of the collection. Mick, Michael’s father works as a tar layer for the local council. He is a heavy drinker and a morose and physically violent man. He is selfish and distant and unyielding but ultimately “family” who needs to be cared for. The unnamed mother is a stoical and wise woman who works in a crumpet factory to help support the family. She shows courage, dignity and resilience against all odds.

The title “SHADOWBOXING” derives from the short story “The Lesson” in which Mick decides that his son Michael at 13 is old enough to start training to be a professional boxer. In the lead up to his son’s thirteenth birthday Mick tells Michael more than once, “I reckon we’ve had enough of this shadowboxing.” From a young age Mick has taught his son how to spar bare fist to open hand with him in the backyard and now it was time for Michael to step up. As a birthday present he receives not one but two pairs of boxing gloves and his heart sinks, “I dreaded the prospect of going even one round with my father, although it seemed likely that I would soon have to.”

The opening short story “The Red House” quickly establishes the setting and tone for the collection. The Byrne family rent a house from an Italian immigrant Mr Carboni in Fitzroy after a move from the regional town of Clunes. On the surface the story is simple but it provides the reader with a series of narrative arcs to help us better understand the family’s dynamics- the father’s “explosive anger”, the tragic sudden death of May, aged 2, the history of “the red house” and the mother’s courageous attempts to make a go of a difficult situation.

Other family stories of note include the “The Return” which starts off as a portrait of the eccentric Aunt Billie but which morphs into Michael’s evolving youthful notions of Father Christmas, before he is attacked by the psychotic Lawrence brothers. “Ashes” is set much later when Michael and his family are forced to move into his grandmother’s house in Carlton after his father is hospitalised. Grandma’s close relationship with a boarder, Jack Morris is elaborated on. Importantly, it is Jack who encourages the young Michael to read & discuss books which later leads to his career as a copy boy and eventually as a sports journalist.

There are also a few interwoven stories which provide interesting character studies of people within the struggling working poor community. “The Butcher’s Wife” is based a true story about a battered woman, Mrs Ruth Goodall, who sets out to revenge her violent husband. Probably more notable is “A Disposable Good” about Wilma Carson, a local abortionist who cares for the needs of distressed women during a time when the medical procedure was illegal.

The stories are between 16 and 20 pages each. The writing is unembellished and very easy to read.  There are elements of sentiment and sensationalism, but overall, the writing is highly credible and emotionally engaging.

The two stories which clearly stand out are “The Lesson” and “The Sea of Tranquility”.  These are brilliant stories which best show the obstacles that Michael must confront & overcome on his journey to manhood. “The Lesson” combines fiction with autobiography, with Michael, like Birch, having to partake in compulsory boxing lessons because “he had increasingly talked about me having a career in the ring, just as he had done when he was younger.” 

The father's advice to Michael is candid, in your face: "When you're getting your head knocked off, that's when you'll find out how big the heart is. But most of all you got to have that instinct, a killer instinct. If you don't have that, it doesn't mean nothing: how fast you are, how hard you can punch. You'll get killed in the end, fucken killed. You got to hate the other bloke. Really hate him. Because if he's any good, when he gets in that ring with you, all he'll be thinking is how he's going to punch the shit out of you. Just one sniff from him that you haven't got it and well, it's over, all over. He'll fucken eat you." The climax to the story is brutal and agonisingly real.

“The Sea of Tranquility” is a more complex story and reveals Birch’s love of the Yarra River which we see in his later novels & ends in the tragic death of Michael’s friend Charlie after they flog a Mercedes & drive blindly along a curving road with the headlights off. This sense of ennui, of extreme carelessness, is captured by Birch in a few short captivating sentences:

‘Good night, Michael, it’s lights out.’

And with that Charlie switched off the headlights at the same time that he pushed the accelerator flat to the floor. I felt the rush. I wound the side window down. A cool gust of air hit me in the face. And I could smell the river coming up to meet me.

Charlie yelled and beat the steering wheel with his fists as he pushed the car around the curves of the boulevard following the river. I looked out of the front windscreen. All I could see was a black sheet. The car roared, Charlie screamed, and the radio thumped a bass guitar riff at me.

And then there was nothing. No sound. No feeling. Nothing.

Although Tony Birch is an indigenous writer he is more interested in class than race. There is only one specific references to race in the text. In “The Bulldozer” the government has decided to knock down a few acres of sub-standard inner city buildings and relocate the tenants elsewhere. Michael watches the destruction of his father’s family home and a contractor yells at his workmate:

“The sooner the whole place is gone the better. It’s full of no-hopers, dagoes, and fucken Abos, They’ve even got Indians here, fucken Indians. You seen the temple down the road, or whatever it is? Should knock it down. Should knock the whole fucken place over.”

This is a solid and interesting first collection- well worth the read!

Interview with Tony Birch: Shadowboxing- The Book Show ABC 12 March 2006 with Ramona Koval: Click on 'show transcript' in this link:

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