By James Barry
Upon the airing of the miniseries Wake In Fright (Ten Network), I decided to revisit the source material: Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name. I found an innately Australian horror story that will have readers adding it to the “I Liked the Book Better” list.
Wake In Fright tells the story of John Grant; bound by financial handcuffs to the State Education Department, the schoolmaster in the blink-and-you-miss-it outback town of Tiboonda. Grant’s loathing of his surroundings is lessened by the knowledge that soon he will be spending his summer holiday lying on a beach in Sydney beside his unrequited love. All he has to do is catch the Friday train from Tiboonda, stay overnight in Bundanyabba, and from there he is only a short flight away from the welcoming arms of civilisation.
Enjoying a parting beer with Tiboonda’s miserly barman and landlord, Grant successfully navigates the first leg of the journey, arriving in “The Yabba” (as the locals call it). Finding a drinking companion in local policeman Jock Crawford, our man is offered a throw of two-up, and an opportunity to make a quick buck. Being new to The Yabba, the friendly faces and a game of chance have a way of separating a fool from his cash.
Waking the next morning hungover and destitute, Grant is unable to leave Bundanyabba and finds himself relying on the kindness of the colourful residents to help him get by. Upon meeting Tim Hynes, one of the regulars at the bar, he is offered all the beer he can drink and a place to stay awhile. Hynes is friendly enough; however he keeps questionable company in Dick and Joe, his mining mates who offer more beer and a seat in their car for a night-time kangaroo hunt.
Joining Grant on his descent to the bottom of each beer glass is Doc Tydon, “A doctor of medicine, a tramp by temperament, and an alcoholic”.
The Doc is another mate of Hynes, who resides in a shack and has an uncanny ability to materialise when the beer begins to flow. He peddles prescription medication and dubious counsel, advising Grant that as long as he fits in and is a good bloke he could sponge all his food and drink in The Yabba. Deciding that fitting in would be in his best interest; Grant spends another beer-fuelled night with the locals, leaving an indelible mark upon his mind and body forever.
Writers who romanticise the outback often do so from the relative safety of the metropolis. It is the exact inverse that inspired Kenneth Cook to author Wake In Fright. Drawing upon his experiences working remotely for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Broken Hill, Cook offers a sinister view of outback towns across our sunburnt country. Issues left unspoken in towns like The Yabba: alcoholism, homelessness, depression and suicide; they linger in the amber, beneath the foamy head of mate-ship in “The Lucky Country”.
Wake In Fright is probably best read sober as it might leave you having second thoughts about that next beer.