WRITING about childhood is tricky territory for even the most skilled novelists. It's easy to lapse into loss-of-innocence cliches or pile on the period details until the writing becomes as cozily familiar as a Pink Floyd black-light poster. But when youthdom is really done right, as it is in Australian writer Tim Winton's "The Turning," his latest collection of short stories, it can deliver a stunning jolt that has little to do with the nostalgic shock of recognition to be found in something like the great short-lived TV series "Freaks and Geeks."
Winton, a prolific writer of novels and stories (18 books and counting), is one of a handful of the greatest contemporary Australian writers, a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist with an unerring ear for the cadences and mores of the working class. In this book, it's teenagers who must endure the heavy burden of that grinding life.
These loosely connected stories (recurring characters crop up) take place in the 1970s, when Winton, 46, was a teenager. There are the requisite references to rock groups, fringy clothing, shabby VW vans and so on. But there's an astringent pathos at work in these stories of troubled, self-aware teenagers trying to negotiate the path to adulthood and finally freeing themselves from the shackles of their troubled pasts.
All of the stories take place on the coast of western Australia, a once-pristine natural preserve that is being despoiled by commercial interests that are plowing up the place's haunted mystery and building prefab developments. Winton writes with a sharply defined sense of place -- you can almost feel the lash of the salt spray in these stories.
Within this changing landscape Winton places his lost boys and girls, who are without support systems at home and so desperate for connection that they practically carom off each other. Family is the great opposing force in their lives, an obdurate millstone, and tragedy is passed down like a dominant gene.
The coast, which seems to vouchsafe these kids' fondest memories, is now being revoked from them, thus teaching Winton's protagonists a harsh lesson in the provisional nature of just about everything.
Abandonment and loss is a recurring theme: Girlfriends leave their men in the lurch, fathers go for cigarettes and don't come back, people die for no good reason. The pleasures of companionship, therefore, are always fleeting. In "Abbreviation," a 12-year-old boy on a beach vacation with his parents falls for an older, free-spirited girl, but then a near-fatal boating accident seems to wash the memory clean -- she vanishes before he can even sort out his feelings for her.
The desperate schoolgirl in "Boner McPharlin's Moll" clings to a brooding roughneck like a life preserver -- he seems to embody some wildness of spirit that she longs for. But he harbors a terrible family secret, and it destroys him, rotting him from the inside out.
The past can be paved over like Winton's doomed coastal city, but it's never effaced. Old memories hover over these stories like apparitions. The ex-flame in "Small Mercies" returns to her hometown to salvage what's left of her ruined, drug-addled life. She meets up with her old boyfriend, who sees in her "the eerie ghost of her teenage self," but it's illusory; he's repelled by what she's become, and the past can't redeem the present.
It's a pleasure to read a writer in complete command of tone. Winton can move from tender to tough in the same paragraph and not make it read like an abrupt jump-cut. Regardless of how wrecked and ravaged these characters may be by the tides of memory and geographical displacement, Winton's empathy always shines through. *