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Nonfiction in Brief

GREATER NOWHERES A Journey Through the Australian Bush by Dave Finkelstein and Jack London (Harper & Row: $18.95)

July 10, 1988|SONJA BOLLE

The lure of the Australian Outback is mysterious: Why should people want to live in the most inhospitable territory imaginable? Why, indeed, would two self-described middle-age dropouts want to tour a country where people say there is nothing to look at for hundreds of miles on end? Where "doing a perish" is an expression reserved for deaths in the bush "to distinguish that form of demise from garden-variety deaths"?

Philip Caputo, in his preface to "Greater Nowheres," turns the reader's attention to one of the book's epigraphs, in which Somerset Maugham advises: "The wise traveler travels only in the imagination." Roughly translated: Better you than me, mate.

"Had this book existed two years ago," Caputo writes, "I might have resisted the authors' summons to join them on the last leg." This spirit sets the tone for the entire travelogue, which consists of hundreds of conversations with Australians who seem to feel similarly ambivalent about Australia. The reason to read this book is the myriad brief encounters, many of which are hilarious. We meet Australians of all descriptions--beer guzzlers, people with names like Desert Fox, Italian cowboys--whose common feature is their enunciation of the ubiquitous "no worries."

There are also the women--the kind you expect and the kind you don't. "Around here, the only place a woman is welcome is in the maternity ward," says one. Another says cheerfully, "My mum was brought up by Zulus, so I think she's rather pleased I'm out here." A third once hauled up a crocodile longer than her dinghy with her catch of fish; she also complains of having to shoot saw-tooth sharks when they get caught in her nets.

The surreal quality of life in the Outback explains why the rough-and-ready Australian film "Road Warrior" works as a futuristic vision. "An Aussie from 1888 could visit the Outback of today and feel right at home," we read in "Greater Nowheres." "Probably, he would feel the same in 2088."

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