A review of Patrick Holland’s The Mary Smokes Boys
While we are at an inextinguishably critical juncture in which the function of reviewing contemporary literature demands a sincere reassessment within the aperture of the global media — do we readers succumb to engaging in a measured and industrious critique for the underlying purpose of endorsement, of publishing promotions, of exclusively contributing to the generation of future book sales, without an oblique investment in actually framing the literature in the context of its substance? — one must always be wary of the motivations of journalistic hyperbole. This is an arduous task for a reviewer to perform with any degree of insightful consistency, of self-reflexive discernment, but it’s especially the case in the context of reading a great book.
Patrick Holland’s The Mary Smokes Boys is one of these. In fact, it’s easily one of my three favourite books this year (the others are Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom), and like those two triumphs of modern American fiction, Holland’s novel is a lyric testament to the power of a single writer capturing the world through the eye of his quill. Even in this age in which, at every fleeting moment, the economically-governed “progress” of global technology and commercial industry consumes an individual’s means to hypostatise the present — to capture an irrefutable vision of the place we hold in our millennial world with fire and eloquence and valour and violent intelligence before such a perspective is occluded entirely from view. Patrick Holland has proven himself robustly attuned to this task, and his second novel, The Mary Smokes Boys, swarms with the value of integrity and sensation in a way that works of fiction so rarely do, in our daily margins of profit and financial gain.
I can promise you that this will be the most significant new work of novel-length Australian fiction you will read from 2010 (I will not disparage nor diminish the vitality of other great and powerful works of original fiction, and from Alex Miller to Chris Womersley to Jon Bauer to Wayne Macauley to Emmett Stinson to Joel Deane to Daniel Ducrou to James Laidler ad infinitum, I know there are many), but Patrick Holland’s The Mary Smokes Boys vibrates beyond the realm of nepotistically-inclined marketplace comparisons, because the novel offers a reality so achingly wrought, so decisively rendered, so incendiary in its heartbroken hunt for human morality that the book, and its relevance, could only be tarnished by the limitations of analogy. So what about Holland’s narrative is so relevant to you or I?
First among many reasons is that he has crafted a story to chill the bones, one in which the haunting bildungsroman of Grey North — sole son to an emotionally-insensitive self-penitent Australian stockman given to vice, and an inexperienced but soulfully generous Gaelic mother devoted to Christianity whom we only come to know through retrospect — is transcribed to page with a trembling fidelity of purpose, and with an urgency and economy of phrase which intensifies the iconographic culture of Mary Smokes, foregrounds its symbolic heft as an almost apocryphal town to which all modern Australia has either originated from or retreated to: the locus of the heartland of our country.
Second among my rationale is that a story of these same dimensions, of a sharp-eyed boy growing up within a forsaken community to endure and transcend the emotional compromises of adolescence — which is to say, a premise almost originary in its vivid overuse within the context of Western literary fiction as to now be a mythology of our culture, a cipher of the way in which we look to writing to self-identify — supplants all prior constructs in the veracity of its articulation. Holland elevates the genre by exploiting the silences manifest within this project of adolescent growth: for example, Grey feels such an obligation of love for his younger sister, Irene, with such an unquestioned sacralising kinship as to channel an almost possessive pathology, as if Grey’s nondistinct (but always apparent) wounded reckoning to protect Irene was beyond the role of territorial older sibling and dancing on the cusp of desire (but this is of course the very point, for to bear human witness to something so beautiful is also to simultaneously engage in the conviction to attain that which is desired).
This isn’t a philosophical, psychological or psychosocial desire, either, but a physiological one; an embodied paean, engendered in a man’s breath and heart, to intervene on the behalf of that object of beauty, so that nothing can intrude to damage it. Irene is Grey North’s touchstone for the person he strives to become: a dependable protector, unlike his alcohol-crippled old man, an independent scholar of experience, like his best friend Ook, a wayfarer to the land of those same wild-prairie Queensland horse districts in which Holland himself enjoyed a boyhood, immersed for twenty-odd years in the music of a bluff of silent tussock, of a solitary fox padding away from the corona of the town’s menacing shadow, of the rumbustious meander of Mary Smokes Creek.
I could will myself here, as a discriminating reader, to broker a précis of the plot for Patrick Holland’s brilliant book — a small rural town, persecuted by bankruptcy, and simultaneously haunted by both the threat and deliverance of a new council-auspiced highway which will disrupt the sleepy isolation of Mary Smokes forever; the emergence of a love triangle which must by the consequence of its geometry only signify horrifying consequences for Grey, his blood brother, Ook, and his sister Irene; a rash attempt on Grey’s father’s behalf to salvage a family he himself unintentionally dismantled; a youthful ache to reconcile the difference in racial and political experience felt by oneself and one’s friends, to spurn the ubiquitous scorn of conservative values in the Abaddon-like outpost that is Mary Smokes; the fragility of something, a place, a heritage, a people, a melody, a life more precious than all others, being beset upon by those who, from their own dimensions of heartbreak, are already sickened by loss; a world weakened by one’s familiarity with it, until what originally made it spectacular has become a normativity, so that its votive of flame ends up guttering — but such attempts would only reduce the complexity of Holland’s emotional landscape to a thumbnail impression.
It’s best to leave it to the following letter, which I wrote to Holland, myself, upon reading his novel, to express the fullness of my gratitude. This is not just a novel of breathtaking vision, but one which displays a humbling respect for his readers. He invites you into the folds of a personal memory, and asks that you respond in kind.
I’ve just finished reading The Mary Smokes Boys — literally ten minutes ago, and it just galvanised the tinder of my gut and heart and wrought me asunder: it is such a profound and powerful little novel, so towering with empathy and human compassion, for an authentic, undeviating, unprepossessed and always sincere affection & concern for your characters, and it bristles with pain; the pain we witness exchanged between Grey, Ook, Irene, Vanessa and the unfurnished desolation of what has coalesced over time and through a chasm of misdirected intention into the interior desolation of Bill North, and the exile & fidelity of the wild boys. But it also rings with a yawning, bloodbuzzed, free-throttle authorial pain which I can only discriminate, with the innermost transparency, to the sacrifice you had to make to write that lucid, staggering, awful, incendiary, most honest, vast and fire-breaking ending. I could never allow myself to channel that much hurt, for an ending like yours; it is testament to your certainty in the love for the people who populate this world that you dare to render such heartbreak, and stir the lost, wheeling embers inside the most fierce reader. I think this is actually an artefact of immense creation, Patrick, a vivid and living book, and that aching penultimate-chapter sacrifice feels corrosive in the best way; like you’ve crafted a subversive Australian pastoral tragedy which earns both its grief and its wonder. I wouldn’t gnaw the inside of your cheek or give a prophetic fuck about any quivering, feeble criticism dispatched your way: you’ve written something I think amounts to one of the best works of fiction this year, and you can only be accused of defying comfort: you are a mad one, Patrick, a real furious exponent of the word, an important scribe and a heartfelt moralist. I’m fortunate to know you, and share in the passion you transfer to page. As for the convergence of ideological & theological expression in the novel, from the glimmer of reincarnation (both literal/embodied and allegorical); the skeptical urgency, yearning for and reluctant dispassion with religious faith; the four-antlered eros/phileo/agape/storge love felt, fundamental obsession and distorted loyalty between Grey and Irene deepening the conflict apparent in the themes of possessing that which is immediately lost; the seeming vacuity of domestic space; the racial condescension intentionally represented towards the likes of Ook and Pos; the violence of wanting something, perhaps sacred, so much that it seeds ruination — I’m sure this all culminated to will unsympathetic fools into convulsions of critical wariness. But such feelings are cruel, lacking in foundation and blind to beauty. If you’ve frustrated anyone, you’ve moved them. That’s how I’d choose to view it. But it would be compromising and counter-intuitive to take anything expressed in this vein in the unsweetened guise of truth. Your book is more than any of this. It is a song, and they have discerned more rousing pastimes than to hear it. This is their inefficiency; not yours, and certainly not that of The Mary Smokes Boys.
Kirk A.C. Marshall