Tom Keneally’s ‘two old men dying’, his latest (33rd!), but surely not his last novel, despite the title, is the consecutively intertwined tales of 40,000 year old ‘Learned Man’, stand-in for Mungo Man, and veteran documentary filmmaker Shelby Apple (get it?), part stand-in for Neil Davis, who sadly didn’t reach old age.
Before I offer my short critique of this novel, I’d like to have a rant. On p109 we meet eye doctor Ted Castwell, stand in for Fred Hollows, who has a passion for John Keats ‘whose poems he could recite in couplets in his aggressive proletarian accent’. It’s just as well Ted’s not around on p42 to see a famous phrase ‘half in love with easeful death’ from one of Keats’ most famous poems ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ ascribed to Shelley! But worse, in a way, to follow, for an Australian reader anyway (amongst which we can assume Keneally). On p59 one of Judith Wright’s most famous poems ‘Woman to Man’ is misquoted: from the opening line ‘eyeless labourer in the dark’ should be ‘eyeless labourer in the night’. I know it doesn’t impact on the novel, but it’s a bit damn depressing that one of our most distinguished authors and his star editors and who knows who else can miss/write such basic literary errors. These are our gate-keepers. OK, I’ll move on.
Prior to reading ‘two old men dying’ I saw two praising reviews of it in the Australian press. After finishing it, I think the critics here are giving the grand old man of Oz Lit a bit of an easy ride. Overall the writing quality is variable, good and not-so-good, and it probably wouldn’t be worth commenting on except that Keneally in the past has produced such outstanding work. Such as ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’, which in a different context covers many of the issues raised in this novel. Keneally has slighted ‘Blacksmith’ (due to the strictures of identity politics), yet to this reader it is superior in every way to this novel.
Keneally has set himself a formidable challenge here, particularly in the re-creation of ‘Learned Man’. The main story, that of Shelby Apple, chancer and charmer filming in various exotic locales, is well within his veteran professional skills. He states in his Author’s Note that ‘though some of them (the characters) were instigated by real people, the novel is not a roman a clef’. Well it seems close to one, all the major figures have doubles, even the brief sketch of Castwell’s wife describes Gabbi Hollows. Not that I think it matters. Keneally has regularly fictionalized historical figures, and I have always felt, reading the novels, that he has tried to do justice to the record, or at the very least successfully re-worked the material into convincing fictional form. So, for example, the ‘controversy’ over whether Booker-winning ‘Schindler’s Ark’ was history or fiction seemed misplaced at the time, particularly given the achievement of the writing.
So too here: Keneally does not satirise or defame but rather honours the real life great old men. If he twists their lives into his own story, he can reasonably argue it is for a higher purpose. Of course, it might also seem to some readers, given the extent of the ‘borrowing’, a little slack creatively. Regarding which, it should be noted the Vietnam episode is reminiscent of a similar scene in Chis Koch’s ‘Highways to a War’ (also ghosting Neil Davis).
No slackness is possible in Keneally’s recreation of the life and times of ancient Learned Man. He takes a few cues from Aboriginal cultural mores, but basically has to invent from scratch. The high poetic type of reconstruction he essays is very difficult to pull off, and Keneally, not a poet to my knowledge, does not seem to have the skill set for it (for a superb example see Alex Miller’s massacre description in ‘Landscape of Farewell’). Perhaps the length is partly to blame. There is the occasional noble phrase but for the most part this story stream reads like selections from an antipodean Disney Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ or a Disney Bible for unlettered pagans. Mostly I cringed reading it, plus the accompanying Aboriginal political suck-up: ‘Learned Man went out in the world to let whites learn something very big’, or ‘modern descendants of Learned Man deserved to be treated with national respect as the true owners of Australia’, and so on. We are also forced fed much supernatural goings on. Does Keneally really believe this stuff might have happened? Has he swallowed that old chestnut about primitive peoples possessing magic powers we moderns have lost through being rational and civilized? Anyway, compared to the gravity of Shelby’s story, despite the ingenuity, most of Learned’s tale comes across as cartoonish.
And what about the wise old women? Where are they hiding? All the women in this novel have supporting roles, to the men. It is a story of men overcoming, men succeeding, men holding the power and promise. All a little one sided.
His thirty-third novel from fifty listed publications. Keneally is a graphophile, a compulsive writer. He loves to write, he can’t help himself. Fine, there are good precedents, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates come immediately to mind, going back we have Trollope and Dickens; quality doesn’t need be sacrificed. I have read a good number of Updike and Oates and while not all of what I have read is consistently excellent, I think it’s fair to say that each novel shows a full commitment, to whatever project. You have to doubt you can do it, despite your skills, despite your record, your prizes, it’s possibly beyond you, they’re all unique challenges, and so you put everything you have into it yet again. Keneally is coasting with this novel, leaning back on his formidable skills. But more than these were required to make this novel work in all its parts. Worth reading? Certainly. But if you have limited time, go back to the earlier works.