Wake in Fright is the harrowing story of a young schoolteacher, John Grant, who leaves his isolated outback school to go on holidays to Sydney (and civilization). Things start to go horribly wrong, however, when stays overnight in a rough outback mining town called Bundanyabba. After a drink fuelled night, in which he loses all his momey, Grant finds himself both broke and stuck in the town with means of escape. He subsequently descends into a cycle of hangovers, fumbling sexual encounters, and increasing self-loathing as he becomes more and more immersed in the grotesque and surreal nightmare that is 'the Yabba.'
John Grant, a young Englishman, teaches in Tiboonda, a tiny railway junction on the far western plains of New South Wales. He sets off to spend his summer vacation in Sydney but doesn't make it beyond Bundanyabba, a nearby mining town known as 'the Yabba'. Stranded in town after losing all his money in a two-up game, he finds himself engulfed by the Yabba's claustrophobic, nightmarish, beer-fuelled stupor, an atmosphere compounded of repressed sexuality, squalid violence, and the sinister mateship of the locals. After being sexually assaulted by the town's alcoholic doctor, he attempts to hitchhike out of the town but is brought back by a truckie. In anger, he tries to shoot the doctor but ends up only shooting himself. After discharging himself from the hospital, Grant takes the train back to Tiboonda, resigned to another year of teaching.
Drawing on his earlier career as a journalist in the north-west New South Wales town of Broken Hill, Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright was his second novel, the first having been withdrawn because of a threat of legal action. The novel was first published in 1961 when Kenneth Cook was thirty-two. In his introduction to the the 2001 Text Publishing edition, Peter Temple writes: 'It was a publishing success, appearing in England and America, translated into several languages, and a prescribed text in schools. It might be forty years since the novel appeared yet it retains its freshness, its narrative still compels, and its bleak vision still disquiets.'
May you dream of the Devil and wake in fright. An old curse.
Watching the film Wake in Fright nearly 40 years after its release - 1971 - brought back one good memory for me of life in the bush. Canvas water bags. Nothing like the taste of water from those bags: sweet and earthy. One hangs on the back of a door in the shambles of a mining shack occupied by Doc Tydon, the movie's supposed villain. Not that anyone in the movie drinks water. Heaven forbid. Instead they neck beer and, in the case of Doc Tydon, glug down whiskey in the legendary quantities typical of men on a weekend bender in the Outback. Typical, I should also emphasise, of men the world over who work in isolated areas under punishing conditions, although the pursuit of the Holy Grail of alcoholic oblivion in the Outback is undertaken with an inexorable determination, not so much blunting pain as getting their due. Cracking a few cold ones with your mates - legacy, birthright, entitlement.