So, still trying to positive and to keep the optimism and enthusiasm flowing, here is another of my favourite things: Paul Toohey’s writing. Toohey’s first book God’s Little Acre is a collection of his journalism and while they are not all earthmoving pieces they did move me. Sometimes touted as Australia’s foremost gonzo journalist, Toohey is a good deal more thoughtful and particular than, say, Evan Wright, and while there are never claims to objectivity the distance Toohey constructs around his subjects is a respectful and warm detachment that offers spaces for his subjects to be much, much more than punch lines in his jokes. For this reason I was completely captivated by Toohey’s second book, Rocky Goes West, which surveys the murky waters surrounding the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in the early sixties while buying ‘primitive’ art from isolated villages in West Papua.
Toohey never quite makes fun of Rockefeller, a dead son and brother, but at the same time never quite suppresses his mirth at the post colonial folly of ‘primitive’ art or the ongoing search for Rockefeller after so many years. Furthermore he lets the overlapping and contradictory accounts from the villagers speak for themselves, respectfully letting lies and obfuscation perform a kind of poetics of loss. In its own way Rocky Goes West is an elegy for anthropology, for the distracting certainties of westerners looking down up people who live in dirt floor huts, women who’ve never worn a top and men who wear gourds over their dicks. Like a good funeral, Toohey both celebrates the passed but recalls the awful foolishness that came about in the course of that passage, and the harm that resulted.
The harm done is central to Toohey’s best work especially The Killer Within: Inside the World of Bradley John Murdoch, both in terms of an individual actually inflicting harm and how we collectively allow that harm to be done. Following Toohey’s journey in the course of investigating and journalising the murder of English backpacker Peter Falconio in 2001 by Brad Murdoch on the Stuart Highway (near Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory) The Killer Within is not so much investigative journalism as contemplative reflection upon life in the geographic and economic margins of Australian life. It is a whirlybird of thoughtful, contemplative and compassionate writing about the fringe dwellers and the fate imposed upon them. John Birmingham’s review is also a very fine piece of writing, you can find it here.
Reading The Killer Within all the fat cops, the widowed alcoholic nurses, the young Aboriginal blokes wandering from town to town, the culture shocked city folk come to teach, the mortgaged remainders of the squattocracy, and the shabby, begrudging gestures of the civilising project that I observed growing up on the edge of the desert are called up from the deep ravines of memory and projected afresh. And from that projection I remembered how much I liked all those people and how they treated me well. The great gift of Toohey’s writing, especially in The Killer Within, is compassion.
Whatever the journey, whatever the fallibility, whatever the scar or how deep the wound, no matter what harm an individual has inflicted, and regardless of how incompetent people might be as people Toohey sketches them with a wonderful empathy. Toohey never presumes to know the intimate topographies of agency, the peaks and troughs of choice, that propel someone to the point where he finds them. He never supposes that he can see behind the hill from behind which a person has emerged.
Even more generously he never believes he can see more than those individuals, if their life is shit he reckons no one would know that better than the individuals in question. He is no more sensitive or noble than his subjects: no more or less inclined to be susceptible to the evils, or prone to the corruptions, of modern life. If the position of those he finds making their way in the world is tenuous or degrading there is no tone of hillbilly exoticism, no deployment of poor white trash or black men drinking in the sun clichés, no histrionic painting of rural and regional horror as per Toomelah or Aurukun. For Toohey the margins are just places where people make lives, and end them.
The openness of this view allows Toohey to let stories be, he doesn’t have to invest them with allegory or pedagogy. He tells stories and he tells you what he likes about them but again he doesn’t presume to be the final authority because he wrote it down. Toohey never tells us what Brad Murdoch represents, he doesn’t tell us what the absent body of Peter Falconio means, or whether the dingo really did or really didn’t eat Azaria Chamberlain (it really didn’t) but he offers a range of voices, treats them well, and leaves it for the reader. Conclusions aren’t for him or us to make, they’re for the jury, if required. We just get to see what we can.
Toohey is a first rate writer and is presently The Australian’s roving North American reporter and he does alright but when he writes about what’s in the shed, or under the bridge, or in the old tar paper shack he demonstrates the core morality of his work: he writes without judgement. It is a beautiful thing.