Monday, November 18, 2013


Fifty years after John F. Kennedy was murdered, in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses and the most famous 8mm camera ever wielded, is it possible to say with certainty who shot him? If we hesitate before replying that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, it might not be because we have too little information. It might be because we have too much. Don de Lillo, in his formidable assassination novel Libra, called it the “data-spew” – “an incredible haul of human utterance.” November 22, 1963, must be the most documented day in history.

The deluge of paperwork started with the report of the Warren Commission, the inquiry ordered by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson. The Commission found Oswald acted alone. From the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository he fired three shots at Kennedy’s motorcade. One bullet missed and hit a kerb. A second round, the much-scoffed-at “magic bullet”, hit Kennedy’s back and exited his throat before hitting the back, wrist and thigh of the Texan Governor John Connally, who was sitting in front of him. The bullet later turned up on Connally’s hospital gurney, in remarkably undamaged condition. Oswald’s remaining shot entered the back of Kennedy’s skull and blew out a gaping mortal wound above his ear ... [READ MORE] 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Down and out

Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is a sobering book. We have a bad tendency to romanticise the figure of the alcohol-fuelled writer – the sodden but eloquent poet, the hard-drinking novelist holding court in the Parisian bar. Those macho myths begin to curl up and die of shame about a page into Laing’s haunting book, which omits few details about the pitiful realities of alcoholic life.  

Laing’s effort to strip away liquor’s allure begins with her title. Echo Spring sounds like an invigorating destination, possibly even a health spa. It turns out, far less salubriously, to be a brand of bourbon favoured by the messed-up Brick, hero of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When Brick wants to forget something, he hits the liquor cabinet. He takes the trip to Echo Spring. 

Laing’s book is a journey too, of a much more salutary kind. Laing is English – she was formerly the Observer’s Deputy Books Editor, and has written a study of Virginia Woolf – but her subjects here are all American. Along with Williams, she considers four prose writers – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, John Cheever – and the poet John Berryman ... [read more]

Writing with the dick

Back in 2008, when Christos Tsiolkas published his fourth novel The Slap, he achieved a result that every novelist hopes for. He tapped into something universal. For a while there, everybody seemed to be talking about the same book. You felt left out if you hadn’t read it. It was like Fifty Shades of Grey, except it was good.

Mind you, the book had a few rough edges stylistically. But at the structural level it had a tact that Australian novels don’t always possess. Tsiolkas didn’t cudgel you with his moral views. He withheld his judgment, thus encouraging you to exercise yours. To discuss the book was therefore to argue about it, sometimes ferociously. How annoying was little Hugo? How much of a pig was Harry? In 2011, when the ABC aired its excellent TV adaptation, the arguments started all over again. 

When Tsiolkas’s fifth novel, Barracuda, comes out this November, curiosity about its author is bound to intensify ... [read more]