To open the pages of a book by Peter Bowes is to enter a quintessentially Australian world, but one that is also universal. We all know these people, see them on the streets, meet them, avoid them, want to know more about them. Bowes writes without judging, and by drawing us in to see others’ lives from the inside, we, too, are less inclined to judge. Perhaps even the despicable Alec Noyce in The Deputy, seeking out and taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others, reflects an aspect of our secret selves writ large, the schadenfreude we rarely admit to.
There is also a yearning here, for something else, something more, something lost. In In Among the Spectres, the writer becomes an appalled witness, mourning – not wholly without ambiguity – the overwhelming and irrevocable impact of ‘those who would defy creation’. There is personal loss here, too, promises made to a dying father in What’s Best: a lifetime’s love, respect, disappointment and hope distilled into 200 heartbreaking words. And in Pipe the sudden mutual recognition of grief:
The ancient widow sat beside me at the hymn singing today, and when she turned to look at the stranger beside her our eyes met, hers soft with understanding and loss, mine remembering a mother long dead.
But we are also invited to share joyful celebrations of the now, the importance of friends and family, the simple pleasures: an outdoor family game in Orange Ball 5, won by ‘the boy’s grandmother – the only one who didn’t hit the dog’. And in Australia Day, wonderful descriptions of friends, family and acquaintances meeting up on this special day, including the enigmatic and charismatic Dave. Why are we drawn to certain people? ‘What is Dave?’ the author asks. We want to be there to find out too.
Bowes is also adept at tragicomedy – a rare skill. In Carnage, the effects of a car crash on a local neighbourhood are bleakly hilarious. But we are also invited to watch the driver, Feeney, as he quietly joins some passers-by to witness the devastation he has caused – not only to the neighbourhood, but also, perhaps, to his life, for it, too, is a car crash.
That most Australian of sports – surfing – is also explored here. But as always with Bowes, there is more to this than meets the eye. Bowes is a surfing aficionado, but his take on the subject goes beyond surfing itself. It’s not necessary to be a fan, or even to know anything about this sport, to appreciate these glimpsed portraits of human impulse, and the mystery of why we do what we do.
Neville, for example, in Neville’s Day, driving for miles after work in the unfulfilled hope of catching a wave: the eternal triumph of hope over experience that is common to us all. In this piece the reader can also enjoy Bowes’ tightly economic evocation of an absolutely still day (anathema to Neville): a static snapshot in time as a tourist, appropriately enough, takes Neville’s photograph, and:
A woman, waiting in the air-conditioned luxury of a Mercedes 500SL for her husband to shower and change, sucked back her gold-tipped cigarette in four long crackling pulls without taking her eyes from Neville’s back.
There are some great stories in this volume too. Bowes’ is a master story teller and outstanding examples included here are The Job Applicants, with its laugh-out-loud ending, and a trio of related tales in Part Seven, Settling In, where we meet Scoresby, ‘newly arrived in the Middle Kingdom from the lassitude of a month’s layoff in the Hong Kong Yacht Club’.
Bowes is a keen observer of life and he takes us with him into hotel lobbies, restaurants, and casinos. He is inquisitive, provocative and sharp-eyed, sharing his experiences with gusto and humour. He wonders at life, and we wonder with him.
Always, though, there is an underlying compassion, an underlying seriousness. William Faulkner spoke of ‘the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing’.
The human heart in conflict with itself is Bowes’ subject… and this is very good writing indeed.
- Bennison 2015
Lineage is the second in a trilogy of works by Peter Bowes. The first, Bloodlines, was published by Bennison Books in 2013.