“I’m only young, but this is how I’ll feel forever. Dazed, randy, mentally paralyzed and swept along by events.”
—Robert Drewe, The Shark Net
“But the horrid thing in the bush!… It must be the spirit of the place.”
—D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo
Perth, in Western Australia, the setting of this fascinating memoir by the Australian novelist and short-story writer Robert Drewe, is said to be the most isolated city in the world. Facing the Indian Ocean, surrounded on three sides by sand and bush and cut off from the far larger, more cosmopolitan cities of the east, Sydney and Melbourne, by the vast Nullarbor Plain, Perth would appear to be, to the traveler, a place of romance: the “City of Light” acclaimed by the astronaut John Glenn who, orbiting the earth overhead in his Mercury capsule in 1963, claimed to have seen “the tiny glow on the south-west tip of the great black southern continent,” as its inhabitants left their lights on through the night in honor of Glenn and the United States space program. “I can see lights on the ground,”Glenn reported. “I can see the lights of Perth on the coast. Thanks everyone for turning on the lights.”
When D.H. Lawrence explored Perth and environs in 1922, preparatory to traveling to Sydney and the east coast where he would write, in five feverish weeks, the sporadically brilliant novel Kangaroo, he found no “City of Light” but a malefic “spirit of place” that evoked metaphysical terror. Lawrence’s protagonist, the Englishman Richard Somers, a thinly disguised portrait of the cranky, visionary writer, has decided that Europe is “done for, played out, finished,” and emigrates to the “newest country: young Australia!” At first, Somers’s sense of his new environment is poetic-mystical, with an undercurrent of the romantically uncanny:
…The vast, uninhabited land frightened him. It seemed so hoary and lost, so unapproachable. The sky was pure, crystal pure and blue, of a lovely pale blue colour:the air was wonderful, new and unbreathed: and there were great distances. But the bush…the grey, charred bush. It scared him…. It was so phantom-like, so ghostly, with its tall pale trees and many dead trees, like corpses, partly charred by bush fires: and then the foliage so dark, like grey-green iron. And then it was so deathly still….
Exploring the bush on foot, alone, Somers has a more alarming, visceral vision that stays with him through the remainder of his Australian adventure:
Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden! He walked on, had walked a mile or so into the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude dead trees, shining almost phosphorescent with the moon, when the terror of the bush overcame him. He had looked so long at the vivid moon, without thinking…. There was a presence. He looked at the weird, white dead trees, and into the hollow distances of the bush. Nothing! Nothing at all…. It must be the spirit of the place. Something fully evoked tonight, perhaps provoked, by that unnatural West- Australian moon. Provoked by the moon, the roused spirit of the bush…. It was biding its time with a terrible ageless watchfulness, waiting for a far-off end, watching the myriad intruding white men.
These intruding white men represent an “Englishness all crumbled out into formlessness and chaos”; the civilization they’ve established in the new land is “a raw loose world” lacking all inner meaning and significance, sheerly animal, “swarming, teeming.”
Powerfully glaring, oversized Australian moons, whether full or otherwise, play a significant, symbolic role in Drewe’s memoir The Shark Net, and Drewe’s evocation of the Australian landscape, a native’s, would seem to confirm that of the impressionable Lawrence. Drewe’s Australia is a place of ocean and river shores where human life is oriented outward, toward water; in The Shark Net and in Drewe’s collection of linked stories, The Bodysurfers (1983), virtually everyone swims and boats, bodysurfs and hikes along the beach: “We knew the tides and reefs, the hot easterlies and blustery westerlies of our coast.” In the concluding story of The Bodysurfers, “Stingray,” a spiritually exhausted man seeks rejuvenation in “the electric cleansing of the surf,” only to receive an excruciatingly painful sting from a stingray or a yet more venomous butterfly cod (“a small brown fish which looks like a weed”) and to think wryly:
This country is world champion in the venomous creatures’ department. The box jellyfish. Funnel-web spiders. Stonefish. The tiny blue-ringed octopus, carrying enough venom to paralyze ten grown men. The land and sea abound with evil stingers. It suddenly occurs to him he might be about to die…. Venom is coursing through his body.
Another character in The Bodysurfers, exiled from his former life and living now by the shore, is haunted by sharks:
I imagine they’re everywhere. In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spray in the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.
In The Shark Net, the young Robert Drewe is similarly obsessed by sharks, both as “archetypal” images and as menacing reality; as a reporter for a Perth newspaper, he follows a pack of tiger sharks along the coast, searching “for fins in the rise of each breaking wave, for those sinister, thrilling shadows in the swells….” His startling, sadistic fantasy is that he’ll be the reporter to write of a bloody shark attack on a “noted victim.” Though he has never seen a man-eating shark in its natural habitat, he’s haunted by the possibility of being attacked and eaten every time he dives into the sea, which is every day: “It had to be that sharks were buried deep in my collective unconscious…. This, I thought, was obviously the underlying anxiety of my life.”
Unless the shark is a manifestation of a predator that can be seen, while less visible predators surround us, lacking faces and identities.
As its subtitle suggests, The Shark Net has a double theme: it’s an intimate account of Robert Drewe’s coming-of-age in Western Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, during a period that overlapped with the reign of terror of one of Australia’s most deranged and brutal serial killers; and an account of the killer himself, a man who turns out to have been friendly with Drewe as a boy, when he’d been employed by Drewe’s father in his capacity as a manager of Dunlop Rubber. The memoir gains in power by this juxtaposition, for it’s structured something like a mystery, and there’s an ironic contrast throughout between the life of the body, a virtual religion in the Australia of Drewe’s experience, and the fact of mortality.
The Shark Net is reminiscent of those unsettling paintings of Eric Fischl, mostly executed in the 1980s, in which a diminutive, brooding adolescent boy gazes without expression at adults who seem to take no notice of him, mysterious to him, and fascinating in their fleshly, self-absorbed sexuality. In both Fischl’s mock-Hopperesque paintings and Drewe’s poetic prose the settings, frequently beach or pool scenes involving partially or wholly naked women and men, are so erotically charged as to seem tumescent. In both Fischl and Drewe the observer enters the scene by way of the boy, though the boy may be virtually invisible. In Fischl’s often dark, congested surfaces there is a suggestion of impending violence, but only a suggestion, for the paintings are finally meant to appear bland and “illustrative”; in Drewe, darkening images of disorder and death intrude upon the Drewes’ upper-middle-class suburban world, like the shadow of a shark beneath the surface of sunlit water, never quite visible, but at the edge of one’s vision.
Drewe’s idyllic boyhood ends; he falls in love, impregnates his girlfriend and marries her, at the age of eighteen; his impetuous behavior outrages his mother. Her personality deteriorates; she dies abruptly, and Drewe is stricken with grief and guilt. (“You’ve probably been wondering,” the family physician says to Robert, “whether you killed her.”) At the same time, the unknown killer commits a series of barbaric murders, of the ferocity and variety of those committed by the Los Angeles “Night Stalker,” Richard Ra-mirez, in the 1980s. After the killer’s arrest, Drewe attends his trial and interviews his wife, and leaves Perth shortly after the killer’s execution.
As a landscape is seen in greater depth when it’s viewed from numerous angles, so The Shark Net gains in depth by being read in tandem with The Bodysurfers, the only work of fiction of Drewe’s that is currently available in the United States.* Episodes touched upon elliptically in the short stories are much more fully developed in the memoir, and certain of the “historic” figures of the memoir are transformed into symbolic types in the stories. In both the memoir and the fiction there is the presence/absence of a mother who has died unexpectedly, her death signaling the breakup of a family, and there is an aggressive, assertive father who seems, in his eccentricities, potentially explosive. There are small, domestic mysteries of the kind never wholly explained within families. There are losses, griefs. There is a bittersweet contemplation of the “life of the body” and its ephemeral nature. There are beaches, sandhills, waterways, swimming and bodysurfing and lovemaking as sacred rites, in a brashly hedonistic, extroverted world in which, as D.H. Lawrence shrewdly perceived, there is little inner or spiritual meaning. And there are the haunting images of marauding sharks.
A shark net isn’t a net in which sharks are caught, but a net stretched for miles along beaches in selected parts of Australia and Africa to prevent sharks attacking swimmers or waders. It seems like a quixotic attempt to combat a lethal predator, and yet if the nets are properly set and are moved frequently, to prevent packs of sharks from establishing territory, the method can be 100 percent effective. “Iliked the idea of nets,” Drewe says. So too the “net” of writing, the crafted manipulation of language, keeps at bay the chaos of a life merely lived, not mediated through art. But Drewe pushes the metaphor further, and finds it ambiguous: “If our beaches were netted Iknew I’d be a more confident person, happier and calmer. Then again, I might lose the shark-attack scoop of my life.”
Drewe’s memoir is also an affectionately satirical look at the paranoia of an isolated city. There is the Great Sparrow Panic (“The Government declared that Western Australia was the last place on earth apart from the North and South Poles where the sparrow hadn’t gained a foothold”), which involves the vigilance of the citizenry and special Government Sparrow Rangers licensed to shoot suspicious birds, with shotguns. These are brought to the Agriculture Protection Board:
Shot birds were arriving curled up in shoeboxes and preserve jars. There were heaps of gray whistlers, silvereyes, cuckoo-shrikes, thrushes, finches, flycatchers, shrike-tits, wrens, robins, mudlarks, willy-wagtails, fantails, and honeyeaters. But no sparrows.
There is also an obsessive fear of Argentine ants (which do invade Western Australia, and thrive), and strangers driving cars with “distinctive yellow Sydney license plates” that are noted by Perth police. In the not distant past, the Western Australian government sent Moral Agents to live among the Aborigines as models of Christian conduct.
Drewe deftly integrates the lurid saga of the serial killer (a seemingly affable workman whom the reader would no more suspect than Drewe himself suspects him) with the saga of his own family’s unraveling. A murderer of eight who has arbitrarily chosen to kill people for whom he felt no emotion, neither positive nor negative, “Eric Edgar Cooke”is the father of seven young children and the husband of a cheerful woman who forgets to note the time of day when he’s hanged. (“What with feeding the kids and getting them ready for school and all the rest of it, eight o’clock sort of went past without me noticing.”) One of the murderer’s sons tells Drewe that his father had warned him about the serial killer:
At the time it was a very warm and secure experience, and maybe it expresses his sense of humor, but he said no one was safe and we had to lock our doors. All the boys used to sleep out in the sleeping porch, and it was a small house—well, it’s got to be a small house, there were seven kids—and he put all the mattresses on the lounge-room floor and we all slept in the lounge room together and he was there to stand guard over us.
Executed on October 26, 1964, Cooke is the last person to be hanged in Western Australia and the second-to-last in Australia.
The Shark Net ends on a tentatively upbeat note: It’s 1964, and Drewe, his young wife, and baby are leaving Perth for the east coast, where Drewe will be writing for The Age, a venerable Melbourne newspaper. He’s only twenty-one. Feeling nostalgic about his boyhood, he revisits favorite places, swims in the ocean at Cottesloe Beach a final time: “It was an achingly familiar and sentimental tableau. But it was all used up.”
All memoirs are finally about loss. We don’t write of the past except when we’ve been ejected from it. The only way back is through memory, haphazard and unreliable as we know it to be, and the only means by which memory is realized is through language. Rogert Drewe has written a moving and unpretentious memoir of a precocious youth, a bittersweet tribute to youth’s optimism that might “always be replenished by a good story, a glimpse of the sea and a particular angle of sunlight.”
October 19, 2000