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.
'G’day. Welcome to the Yabba. Just passing through?
'It’s the best little town in the world. Things a bit grim? Chin up.
'John Grant is well-read, but an outback misadventure strands him—cashless and jobless—in a harsh and remote Aussie outpost, Bundanyabba.
'So, he makes new ‘mates’: they’re quick with a drink, but with every scull a dark violence lurches forward. Are these blokes fair dinkum, or is there something more sinister at the heart of this little Aussie town?
'On our Beckett Theatre stage, the entire world of Wake in Fright is conjured by the always-evocative Zahra Newman (The Book of Mormon) accompanied by a sonic assault from art-electronica band, friendships. Under the direction of Declan Greene, Kenneth Cook’s iconic work of Australian Gothic horror is felt in the flesh. Bring sunscreen, buy a beer and wear your ear plugs.
'Once we pierce the Yabba’s ocker veneer, you better be ready for the explosive brutality pent up inside.'
Source: Malthouse Theatre.
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.
'Wake in Fright was published in 1961, more than 50 years ago. Australia, many assume, has come a long way since then. Yet Kenneth Cook’s masterpiece, the novel by which he is still best known and that has hardly ever been out of print, is timeless. The forces that plunge hapless schoolteacher John Grant into a spiral of alcoholic despair—lack of money, desperation, the heat and the alien nature of the landscape—remain menacingly relevant.' (Introduction)
'Postcolonial Gothic, like revisionist historical fiction, might be seen as another symptom of the reassessment of discourses of colonial history since the 1960s, though Gothic interrogations of national cultural myths have a darker more anxious quality, tending to focus on 'ghost stories' that haunt narratives of origin...' (Introduction)
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.