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Book Review : God, Whales Propel a Tale of Small-Town Australia

July 07, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Shallows by Tim Winton (Atheneum: $14.95)

In a beach town named Angelus, far far south in Western Australia, time-bound men and women live out their lives. They are trapped (as all of us) between past and future: They carry ghetto blasters and go to laundromats, but still visit ivy-garlanded outhouses. Their traditions are rusting away--even as they clutch them ardently--into tourist attractions.

Whales are Angelus' past. The town began from the stinking rubble of a failed whaling expedition in 1831, and whalers still ply their messy trade here, even though the products of their industry--margarine, cosmetics, pet food--can be made just as easily with other raw materials. The town is dotted by giant, smiling, concrete whales, over the motto: Have a Whale of a Time in Angelus. But the whalers go on whaling, even though the reasons for them to do so have stopped. It's their history, their bravery, their endurance. What else can they do?

Arrival of 'Agitators'

Then the town is invaded by what the American South used to call "outside agitators": In this case it's a slew of Greenpeace types, who may be more interested in the image of "saving the whales" then the actuality. Their sophistication, their detachment, their ease of movement, their freedom from the need to be employed, make them an almost different species from the small-towners of Angelus, who live at a pace so slow it seems, sometimes, to stretch out into eternity.

Of the townsfolk, we meet--directly and indirectly--several generations of Coupars, Angelus' oldest family. Queenie Coupar, a strong, strapping, fearless young woman who swims like a fish, has married Cleve, an outsider; slope-shouldered city-fellow who longs for nothing more than to belong to a strong past and a good woman. Cleve is timid and perhaps inadequate, but he has the sense to know it; he's cursed with an active mind. Queenie's grandfather is a farmer; cranky old cuss who lives on the family farm inland, and broods over the past, and past sins. He loathes Cleve, or is jealous of his and Queenie's happiness, or perhaps it's something else that torments him. He gives Cleve his own grandfather's family journals to read. . . .

Small-Town Characters

Back in town, winter rains pour down. Haasa Staats, the bar man, doles out free beer in endless happy hours. The Rev. William Pell, due to retire, frets over whether he's done enough good in his life. Des Pustling (close kin to those Faulknerian Snopeses) plots and plots about how to buy up Angelus, lock, stock and barrel. There are other minor characters; Marion, a social-climbing secretary, who forces herself to have sex with Des Pustling, even though he loses teeth the way other people shed dandruff; a flock of shy and drunken Aborigines who lounge outside Haasa Staats' bar begging for drinks; and the shy and elusive members of the Rev. Pell's Ladies Guild. But the real characters here are the big ones. Noticing that, one wonders why writers don't go for them more often. It's chancy, but the payoff can be spectacular.

God, nature and whales--not necessarily in that order--are the "people" who run this book. Winton has been spoken of as a "radical Christian," but in a sense, the world view here is animist: Everything is alive--not just the whales but the sharks, not just the sharks but the sea, not just the sea but waterfalls that dry into fetid pools; and the scum and the insects are alive as well. The Rev. Pell invokes that knowledge, that sense of the Heart of God, and tries, ineptly, to turn it into good works.

The Legacy of Evil

But what are good works? How can man know? Evil is comparatively easy to identify: The first Coupar who lived through the foul, shore-based whaling expedition had no sense, certainly, that slaughtering whales might be "bad"; even raping aboriginal women and slaughtering their men might have been passed over in those days on the grounds that the natives were "savages." But homosexual rape of other men on the expedition, cannibalism--all this was not Boy Scout behavior. It was evil, and evil leaves its legacy.

"Good" is more elusive. When Queenie Coupar, droning her bored beach-town way through life as a tour guide, finds herself suddenly involved in a save-the-whales demonstration, she thinks that for the first time she's found something meaningful. But even as she searches for the good in all this, the love in her life has been put on hold. The grace has gone from her relationship with her husband. Her father is left alone on that farm, which has dried into dust, since, even as it keeps pouring along the coast, the inland is tortured by drought. . . . .

An Inscrutable World

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