Sunday 21 April 2019

Only Killers and Thieves: Gripping tale of blood, dust, murder and revenge

Fiction: Only Killers and Thieves, Paul Howarth, Pushkin Press, paperback, 416 pages, €15

Otherworldly: Howarth evocatively describes the Outback
Otherworldly: Howarth evocatively describes the Outback
Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Australia, more specifically the Outback, has long been fertile ground for film-makers: think sun-seared classics such as The Proposition, Picnic at Hanging Rock or Wolf Creek. It's no surprise: the incomprehensibly vast and empty space in the centre of the vast continent seems nearly like an alien planet to us, intrinsically cinematic and lush with possibilities for striking imagery.

There have been quite a few great novels set in the Australian bush; Picnic at Hanging Rock, of course, was originally a book. But with Only Killers and Thieves - latest in a superb line from the groundbreaking Pushkin Press - Paul Howarth has delivered an instant classic of the genre.

English-born but once resident Down Under for several years, Howarth crafts a gripping tale of blood, dust, murder, racism and revenge. Essentially, Only Killers and Thieves is a western, transplanted from the Sierra Nevada or Santa Fe to late 19th-century Queensland.

Two white homesteaders, the McBrides, long battling the ferocious elements and (understandably) hostile natives, are murdered in their home. Twelve-year-old daughter Mary is gravely wounded. Teenage sons Tommy and Billy were absent, their commingled guilt and relief driving them to seek first aid for Mary, then vengeance for their dead parents.

That comes from John Sullivan, a boorish and avaricious robber-baron who basically owns all the land in this area, hundreds of square miles, as far as the eye can see. And as Howarth's vivid prose constantly reminds us, out here in these flat Badlands you can see more or less to infinity.

An Aboriginal youngster called Joseph is blamed for the killings, his gun found at the scene. Sullivan uses this as an excuse to assemble a war-party against the entire Kurrong tribe - Joseph's people - assisted by dubious testimony from Billy and Tommy to convince policeman Noone to join them and make the whole thing "official".

Noone is a fascinating, horrific character. He leads a troop of so-called Native Police: Aboriginals, in effect, paid to hunt down and kill other Aboriginals. Amoral, intelligent, prescient and probably sociopathic, Noone is akin to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: unflinchingly honest about what he, and all settlers, are doing here in Australia, but no less of a monster for that honesty.

The lynch-mob rides out into the scrubby desert. What they meet there, what they do, will haunt Tommy for the rest of his life. The other main character, besides Noone - in a very weird way, they're almost complementary - Tommy becomes increasingly queasy about this mission and their motivations.

The stomach-turning slaughter and rape, and insanely vicious social Darwinism, are reminiscent at times of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But while Only Killers and Thieves doesn't shirk from the horror of those awful times, neither does the novel wallow in it.

Indeed, the most memorable moments for me were Howarth's descriptions of this landscape, expressive without being self-consciously "literary".

Incredibly harsh and inhospitable but suffused with a stark beauty, the Outback seems surreal and otherworldly, more dream than place. Or, I suppose, a place where the Aboriginal dreamtime disintegrates into genocidal nightmare.

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