Rohan Wilson has won the 2011 Vogel prize for his stunning historical novel The Roving Party. In the story, John Batman, who later founded the settlement that became Melbourne, hires an Aboriginal man called Black Bill, some Dharug trackers and a ragtag, shoeless mob of convict assignees and sets out across Tasmania to track down and kill the ‘witch’ Manalargena. This is set within the context of the Black Line; an 1830s attempt to, if not systematically exterminate, then at least ‘round up’ and exile the Pallawah peoples of Van Diemen’s Land.
Tasmania seems conducive to historical fiction. Whether it is the Black Line, the penal settlement of Port Arthur, the extinction of the Thylacine or the more contemporary environmental battles, Tasmania has a geographical and historical intensity that lends itself to fantastical narratives built around history’s bones.
I sat up and took notice of this year’s Vogel prize winner when I read that Rohan Wilson’s winning work was partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Later, on reading The Roving Party, I could feel McCarthy, sitting there like some gargoyle ancestor under the text. Wilson covers the same kind of territory as McCarthy’s recurring themes – it’s there again in All the Pretty Horses, The Road and No Country for Old Men: inexperienced men often led by a steely pragmatist moving across large swathes of country, hunting Apaches/corrupt Mexican captains/freedom. There is always a boy who, out of no choice or alternative future, joins the mob, his fast-fading youth granting juxtaposition to the jaded men’s ill deeds.
Then there is the syntax. My initial experience of reading McCarthy was akin to discovering Dorothy Porter’s verse novels. All the bells went off in my head when I realised that McCarthy had effectively wrangled himself a new genre. He reinvents the sentence to accommodate the rolling, travelling rhythm of a horseback narrative. They followed the trampled ground left by the warparty and in the afternoon they came upon a mule that had failed and been lanced and left dead and then they came upon another. (p.60)
McCarthy is spare with his commas and heavy with ‘ands’. My high school English teachers told me never to do that. Reading his work feels like wagging school for the first time. McCarthy puts together long paragraphs, piling up the gore with carnivalesque violence. I am breathless and realise there hasn’t been a full stop for a page or two. Then he will slam the whole scene to a halt with a few choked out words from an inarticulate mercenary.
In The Roving Party, the rolling horseback rhythm is shortened to a weary footsore beat but the violence remains amoral, often without consequence. Costumery, in both books, is essential to the delivery of violence and a nod to the human body as history.
McCarthy on the Apaches warriors:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in head gear of crane feathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeon-tailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armour of a Spanish conquistador, the breast plate and pauldrons deeply dented with blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust ... (McCarthy, p. 55)
This sentence continues on and is all the more terrifying and beautiful for its piled-up history, its visual, visceral assault on colonisation and invasion. Rohan Wilson describes, with less bombast, the dispossessed Pallawah people and their costume for ongoing war against the colonisers. Manalargena’s warriors are first introduced as a kind of 1830’s pastiche of the old world and the new:
They watched him across the mists, gripping clusters of spears like long slender needles. Kangaroo mantles hung loosely off their frames to hide the costume pieces beneath, trousers old and torn and black with the blood of game they had taken and looted cotton shirts gone to rags. One of their number was got up in an infantryman’s crosswebbing and another was fitted out in a fine worsted coat as if dressed for dinner. Their breath bled in the cold. Not a cast of relics come out of the grasslands where their forebears had walked but men remade in ways peculiar to this new world. As he watched those figures from the doorway the Vandemonian felt for the knife he kept rigged between his shoulderblades. (Wilson, p. 2)
Women’s voices are absent in Blood Meridian. The strong woman who bathed the drooling idiot in the river, burnt his cage and dressed him, is a rare example of a female character. Women are scenic victims but they don’t speak, only reprimand, bemoan, wail and grieve.
And sex scenes are distasteful in this man’s world, it seems. Even the softness of flesh against flesh during the rape of a woman is too soft for the hardness of this book. Little girls go missing whenever the Judge is around. Rape is not described but assumed; from the judge’s murderous paedophilia to the mass rape of murder victims, to the whorehouse, the captive Indian girls and the lieutenants’ wives. In Blood Meridian, intimacy and the sexual act scream its absence.
Sex and death are closely aligned in our universal mythologies, so this contradiction in stories always puzzles me. The Roman amphitheatres were lined with brothels and horny noble women; acknowledgement of the highly charged sexual environment of gladiatorial combat. Yet the movie Gladiator does not have a single sex scene and Blood Meridian runs with this same contradiction. The only physical intimacy is violence.
Wilson’s depiction of women and intimacy is quite different. There is still no sex but this absence is not noticeable because The Roving Party’s scenes with Black Bill and his longhaired wife of few words are refuges of gentleness. Their quiet bond allows a breather from the story’s chaos of attacks by hoards of painted dogs, the kidnapping of indigenous children and point blank executions of old lawmen. Wilson gives the Aboriginal woman a dignity and humanity that is denied to Batman’s white womenfolk in the narrative. The roving party happens upon an elderly clanswoman of high standing, wearing a mantle of white kangaroo skin and cicatrix of power across her limbs. Her eyes are terrifying. She unsettles everyone.
Watch it. She has a waddy.
She no trouble. Are you, missus? (Wilson, p. 196)
Blood Meridian may have informed and inspired Wilson. However his lucid rendering of Dharug, Pallawah, convict and settler dialogue reads as beautifully authentic. Violent depictions of colonial and frontier conflicts within the same era will lend themselves to McCarthyesque language but Wilson has moved on from Blood Meridian rhythm and made his own story; a Vandemonian story.
As to the title of this review? In every Cormac McCarthy book I’ve read, there is a scene where the main character’s boots fill with blood, usually due to being shot, stabbed, or gored by a bull. In The Roving Party, Black Bill finally gets his boots filled, thanks to the witch Manalargena.
Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2011, 282pp.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Picador, London, 2010, (1985), 355pp.