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Public Troubles, Private Woes : A RIVER TOWN, By Thomas Keneally (Doubleday: $24; 324 pp.)

June 18, 1995|John Clark | John Clark writes the "Page to Screen" column for Book Review

Thomas Keneally's "A River Town" could easily have the word small appended to its title, as in "A Small River Town," or simply "A Small Town." Yes, a river figures prominently here, but the book is really about small-town life. Keneally, a novelist with more than 20 books behind him (including "Schindler's List"), knows that there's more gossip, hypocrisy, vindictiveness, jealousy, adultery and general behind-the-scenes disorder per capita in small towns than in any big town you can name. And this particular town, set in Australia's New South Wales at the turn of the century, is no exception.

Without any preamble, Keneally plunges the reader into a bizarre tragedy. A young woman dies of a botched abortion, and her head is sawed off by the authorities and preserved in a bottle so that she can be identified. It's as if Keneally wasn't confident that readers would have the patience for a leisurely introduction to the town's citizens, so he presents not only a mystery but a gruesome one at that. In fairness, much of what follows is an outgrowth of this event, but don't be misled by the book's dust jacket, which states that our hero, Tim Shea, is "disturbed" by the town constable's search for the woman's murderer. The murderer is not in question. Rather, the woman's name and the name of her child's father is. That's what haunts Tim, that and her pickled head.

Tim has other, more mundane problems, too. He has come to Australia from Ireland in hopes of a better economic life and to free himself from the social and political constraints of the Old World. Of course, any society of men has its own constraints, as he soon learns. A shop owner, he is shunned first by his customers, then by his suppliers, and finally he is harassed by the government--all because it is "known" that he harbors anti-Colonial views. Keneally does an excellent job of dramatizing these threats to Tim's livelihood. They have all the menace of a gun held to his head.

Tim's public troubles are matched, or at least accompanied, by concerns at home. He is married to feisty Kitty, with young two children and another one on the way. He is responsible for yet another child, this one orphaned and sent at his expense to a convent. A sister-in-law, probably as tough as his wife, is arriving for an indeterminate stay. Much of the book's humor comes from Tim's put-uponness. Like Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect. His wife gives him hell because he doesn't have a head for business or the sense to keep his political views to himself. His acts of decency are misconstrued as subversive, or worse. He's a simple but by no means stupid man in a complicated world.

This world is realized by Keneally in many ways, some more effective than others. One source of both the book's pleasures and difficulties is the language. Sometimes it is Irish/Australian/poetic/period to a fault. "Bung-pulling would go to warrant the lack of room for the orphan in the shop residence"--or: The orphan's mischievousness is reason enough to keep her in the convent. The meaning has to be teased out. At other times, particularly with the dialogue, Keneally musters a vigor that matches the characters' own. It's got a real kick. "Miss Importance from some s----- pigyard in Cork!" cries a jealous native girl to her recently arrived rival. "Queening it in the bloody colonies, for dear God's sweet sake!" (The women in this book are often more interesting than the men, much as in real life.)

"The bloody colonies" are still a frontier, where a man can make a fortune raising cattle or cutting timber, or he can see his fortunes fall due to fires, floods, snakes, typhus or the dreaded bubonic plague. Some of the most memorable scenes in the book involve the plague. At one point, Kitty is quarantined in a plague camp, and such is Tim's love--and lust--for her that he rides all night along the river's boggy bottom for a brief, and potentially lethal, tryst. At another point he himself is quarantined and watches with both horror and pity as some of his fellow "contacts" turn black and die. Keneally has done his homework on this subject and put it to good use.

Tim, of course, survives all of these misadventures. The surprise is that his essential decency prevails in unexpected ways--and that willful Kitty is elevated in our eyes while such smooth operators as her sister are knocked down a peg. Unfortunately, despite Keneally's best efforts, readers who want their plots and characters predigested may not get this far. In fact, readers who judge a book by its cover may not even open it: This one features a blandly bucolic depiction of a wagon being pulled along a country lane. Keneally's river town may be small, but it's a whole lot bigger than that.

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