The Promise by Tony Birch reviewed by Margot McGovern
By Tony Birch
ISBN: 978 0 7022 4999 0
Reviewed by MARGOT McGOVERN
A father mourning his dead son spends solitary afternoons ‘raking fallen leaves and weeding the garden … on [his] knees, sifting through the rose beds with [his] bare hands’. A widower cannot rest in an empty bed, and laments that with his wife dead, ‘A good night’s sleep was hard to come by.’ A car park attendant sits alone in his kitchen where he can ‘hear the loneliness of the house’ after his girlfriend leaves, and drowns the noise with an old record his parents once danced to. Each of these characters in The Promise by Tony Birch has been brought low and exists in that moment when grief and anguish pass and hope returns. The Promise is a collection of twelve such stories of hope lost and faith restored—stories that hinge on moments of change, in which the characters do not so much encounter turning points as leave their old lives behind and begin anew.
The Promise begins with a quote from Revelation, 21:4: ‘There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed.’ In the title story Abraham dreams of starting a church in the back room of the house he spent his life saving for. When he dies before he can gather a congregation, his grandson, Luke, promises to ‘build his church and fill it with believers,’ and though Luke develops a taste for drink, fate holds him to his word. What Birch promises through each story is a salvation of sorts. However, the redemption he offers is often hard won. Birch’s narrators are lost boys and men, weary sinners haunted by their past and by their failings. Birch beats them down, sees them unstrung and broken before pulling them from the smoking wreck of a car, an alcoholic bender, their deepest moment of heartache, and extending his small tokens of hope.
The characters move towards a homecoming, a solace. At the end of ‘China,’ the first story in the collection, ex-con Cal, who has been hopelessly seeking his high school sweetheart, finds a new guiding light, spying a radio tower beacon on the road, ‘pulsing a beam of red light across the sky’ and drives toward it ‘as if it were the star of Bethlehem itself.’ Similarly, in ‘Refuge for Sinners’ a grief-stricken man is called from a grey, Melbourne afternoon by ‘the ringing of church bells above the noise of city traffic,’ and inside the unfamiliar church finally finds a place to rest:
Feeling weary, I rested my head against the back of the pew and looked up at the timber paneling in the ceiling above the altar. The inlay of each oak panel had been finished in brightly painted gold stars on a blue background.
In ‘After Rachel’ university dropout Stephen is at a loss after his girlfriend Rachel breaks up with him ‘in a Dear John note scribbled on the back of a gas bill she hadn’t bothered paying’. While Rachel removes her possessions from the house, Stephen comes untethered from his old life, ‘walking the streets until I suddenly realised that I’d managed to get myself lost.’ He lives in an empty house, subsisting on ‘black coffee, cigarettes and toast’ until a kindly neighbour offers to pick the olives from a tree in Stephen’s backyard. She returns to his doorstep a fortnight later with the marinated fruit and a kind word: ‘Enjoy the olives. They bring peace.’ The neighbour appears as a suburban incarnation of God, The Gardener, and the olives are the biblical symbol of peace that the doves brought to Noah after he’d drifted for forty years at sea. Similarly, in ‘Distance’ Peter, a teacher from Melbourne, finds himself adrift, confiding, ‘I had no idea which way to head, but didn’t want to let on that I was lost before I had even started the search.’ He takes the train to a small town to seek his absent father. However, it is his mother’s family, relatives he has never met, who invite him to ‘Come with us. Up home.’ Through these simple moments Birch acts as preacher, singing his sinners home to the Promised Land.
However, Birch’s god is not a wholly benevolent figure. While at times the divine appears in the form of a guiding light or a jar of olives, at others it manifests in Gothic visions of sublime terror. In ‘The Ghost of Hank Williams’ a dying alcoholic is moved to make a change in his destructive lifestyle after a disturbing dream:
The sky was full of thunder and scratches of white-hot lightning. I could hear yabbering above the racket. It was two fellas chuckling. One of them was chewing on something. It was my old liver. I looked down at my belly and saw that my guts had been ripped open.
Similarly in ‘The Promise’ Luke is saved from a car wreck, and, after an eerie bush baptism, returns to town to make good on his promise to found his grandfather’s church.
I went out through the door and started walking the road, free of pain… When I reached the town, I walked straight down the middle of the street. People stopped to gawk, coming out of the stores and standing on street corners watching me. The red dust had settled on the hem of my gown and it looked as if my bottom half had been dipped in blood.
While many of the stories follow characters who move from anguish to hope, Birch also considers that ‘the old order of things has passed’ through the passage from boy to manhood. In ‘The Toecutters’ two friends egged on by one boy’s grandfather, believe a Melbourne gang have sunk a body in the river where they swim. The river is the site of a new infrastructure project and the landscape of their childhood is about to be reshaped. The menace of the gang looms large, like the bogeyman. The boys have one last summer. One last game. Similarly, in ‘Sticky Fingers’ an inter-housing estate marbles tournament is all consuming for four friends. However, as they move closer to the finals, new pleasures creep in, and the boys’ sexual awakening compromises their performance in the marbles ring. In ‘Snare’ an elderly neighbour gives a lonely, stuttering boy purpose by teaching him to trap and kill pigeons and, when he learns the boy is a victim of bullying, he shows him how to stand up for himself with a homemade pipe gun. For the boys in these stories the time has come to put away childish things and to navigate a new world of sex and violence.
Birch writes from the margins, seeking out his sinners from the overlooked places in the Victorian landscape. He veers from Melbourne’s storybook laneways to linger in cheap motels, council estates and 7-Eleven car parks at midnight. He squats in weedy backyards behind peeling weatherboards in deep suburbia, and ventures down the train line ‘through empty factories and bombing stones into the oily channel running next to the line’ until he arrives at the graffittied husk of an old bowling alley. He travels country back roads and immerses himself in the towns where tourists don’t stop. Like his narrators, his Victoria is a broken landscape, battered and dejected as its inhabitants, and ripe for resurrection.
Birch’s prose has a strong Australian accent: blunt, yet musical, fleshing out characters with a simple turn of phrase: a drug addict who’s led a ‘rock-hard and ruinous life’ who can make a guitar ‘weep like a mother who’d lost a new born’. A girl who once dined at a café with her lover is later seen heartbroken: ‘walking with her head buried in her chest carrying a sad-looking sandwich,’ and a school bully is given menacing life with ‘a wild Mohawk hairdo that he’d done himself and an ugly scar below one eye; some said from a knife fight.’
The Promise is grubby and gruff but also fragile. Reading each story is like shucking an oyster, breaking through a knobby, hardened shell to discover something tender within. While the tone is unfailingly masculine, these aren’t stories the blokey protagonists would share down the pub. Rather they are tales so strange and unlikely the characters revisit them in private moments, unsure if they happened or were just a dream. In the ‘The Money Shot’ a thug brings his baby daughter along to a blackmailing scam when he can’t find a babysitter, while in ‘Keeping Good Company’ a man and his elderly neighbour stave off loneliness by piling their pets in the car and going for chocolate ice cream in the middle of the night. Birch uses this inner tenderness and fragility to round out his characters and make them human, firmly grounding his urban fables in a real and recognisable world.
The Promise is at times ugly, violent and frightening. Birch’s characters wail and gnash their teeth, lost in deserts of grief and loneliness. But ultimately Birch’s message is one of quiet hope—a reminder that there is always someone, whether a divine being or a neighbour, watching out for us, and that even in our darkest hour we do not walk alone.
MARGOT McGOVERN is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer. She is also associate editor of Ride On Magazine and holds a creative writing PhD from Flinders University. For more about Margot visit www.margotmcgovern.com