ON THE AVENUES: Riders in the Hummer.


ON THE AVENUES: Riders in the Hummer.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Most of what I know about Australia has been sporadically gleaned from a handful of books, documentaries and films, although far less of the Crocodile Dundee variety than Children of the Revolution and Gallipoli. The latter brought Mel Gibson to American audiences; he was born in the United States but moved to New South Wales as a boy. On the other hand, the classic movie era actor Errol Flynn came from Hobart, Tasmania, which is part of the Australian commonwealth, and later became an American citizen.

The Manic Street Preachers, a band from old Wales, have a song about Australia. Appropriately, it’s called “Australia.” Australian bands you may have heard include INXS, AC-DC and Men at Work. Peter Garrett, the angular fellow in the Midnight Oil song about aboriginal lands, was an activist who eventually became a politician.

My friend Graham, born Canadian and now New Albanian, toured Down Under a decade ago, and he has provided first-hand testimony. So have various natives encountered while traveling. Back during my salad days in Europe, it seemed to me that the Australians were a blessed caste of backpackers. They had an untouchable quality, as such: If an American and an Australian were caught at 4 a.m. urinating on a sacred statue in the central square, only the Yank would be hauled away to jail. The gendarmes would merely laugh at the Aussie, who would be shooed away to sleep it off.

Such nice, harmless lads, and not imperialist at all!

It should be noted that not once during Graham’s trekking tales did we ever share an ice-cold Foster’s Lager, because Foster’s most assuredly cannot be termed “Australian for beer” when it is mass-produced in Canada, not Canberra. Americans tend to remain ignorant of such important distinctions, and perhaps accordingly, many of us bought into the whole Crocodile Dundee shtick.

This is why I remain dubious of so many of my countrymen, although I can think of at least one Australian who felt the same way toward his.

Earlier this summer, I finally read a novel about Australia: Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White. The novel was published in 1961, and White was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.

It probably is an understatement to suggest that White’s relationship with his homeland was psychological, visceral and adversarial. Reading the overview of his life and career, one readily sees the ambiguities: A well-traveled gay writer and intellectual returns to his native Australia after half a life spent elsewhere, and finds that his country is his polar opposite, embracing superstition, hypocritical piety and macho doltery in equal measures. In outspoken fashion, White spent the remainder of his days trying to square the circle, while ignoring calls to “go live somewhere else if you hate it so much here.”

How oddly familiar this sounds to generations of New Albany’s book readers.

Riders in the Chariot traces the comings and goings, and an eventual convergence, of four very different residents of a fictionalized Sydney suburb (Sarsaparilla) in the late 1950s. Their common thread is not in any sense that of shared backgrounds. Rather, it is an ecumenical, non-denominational grasp of spirituality, because each of them has experienced visions of the flaming chariot described in the Book of Ezekiel.

The central characters are:

Mary Hare: An elderly, eccentric and virtually feral heiress inhabiting a crumbling mansion appropriately called Xanadu. Her decision to hire a housekeeper has unexpected consequences.

Ruth Godbold: The local washerwoman and mother to a large brood, abandoned by her husband and relegated to inhabiting a converted garage. She is the inadvertent glue for the neighborhood, and is largely ignored when not actively maligned.

Alf Dubbo: A peripatetic aborigine from somewhere in the scrublands, possessing only borderline literacy, he is largely uninterested in white culture, but is a gifted natural artist able to express himself only when painting.

Mordecai Himmelfarb: A former Jewish holy man and academic, he narrowly escaped the gas chambers and lost everything in the Holocaust. Resolved to flee European old ways, he sets out as a penitent, randomly selects Australia as a new home, and rejects his educational background in favor of manual labor in a bicycle parts factory.

Riders in the Chariot is rife with symbolism, and while much of it is Biblical in origin – at a critical juncture, Dubbo denies knowing Himmelfarb – the novel cannot be said to be religious. Those who have experienced the vision of the chariot have been exposed to a universal truth, not a sectarian dogma. Surrounded by dullards, they glimpse a kinder future, but like the proliferating undergrowth choking Hare’s unkempt property, there is a strong suggestion that any striving for ultimate truth that exists outside one’s individual consciousness is likely to fall prey to nature’s limitations, and humanity’s destructive nurture.

In short, spirituality doesn’t have a prayer in the face of mankind’s territorial proclivities, religious or otherwise. Life remains death: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust … and no one ever gets saved.

Obviously, the novel needn’t have been confined to Australia to achieve this conclusion. With only slight alterations, the setting could well have been New Albany. It might yet be. There is no happy ending, and yet there is much to be learned. The events that transpire to produce tragedy do not occur owing to divine decree. They result from conniving, fallibility, stupidity and fear on the part of human beings, who couldn’t manage to see a fiery chariot if it landed atop their corn hole boards.

I haven’t ever been to Australia, but Patrick White never came here, either. For some reason, that fact seems important.