‘When Colts Ran’ by Roger McDonald

9685801Sweeping, centreless and spread across half a century, When Colts Ran is an epic of masculine friendship and a paean to rural Australian life.

But having said that, When Colts Ran is not an easy read.

It begins in post war Sydney as tearaway orphan Kingsley Colts is expelled from his boarding school. What follows is some 50 years of watching the larrikin through various stages of his adult life  – but with several detours along the way.

From a young shearer on the massive Eureka sheep station to a livestock agent, from a lonely middle-aged man in the small town of Isabel Junction to the local drunk, Colts remains steadfast, almost the point of reference, as individuals come and go, drifting in and out of each others lives.

But Colts is not the central character of the book. No one is. Centreless, When Colts Ran is a series of interrelated stories and overlapping characters that tell the story of not one man but of a time, a place and masculine friendships in a tough, rural environment.

World War One veteran Dunc Buckler is one of the first characters we meet, a man who, with his artist wife Veronica, is the guardian of Colts. ‘Misplaced genius and authentic ratbag’, Buckler is worshipped by the impressionable young boy. But he’s off in the vast open spaces of the interior with his team, scouring the country for machinery and metal for the war effort.

Having been expelled from school, it’s Colts’ journey and attempt to follow Buckler into the empty wasteland of central Australia that sets the novel in motion. But this is not an exclusive trail.

Characters of past and future are casually introduced, integral as they are to the novel as they invariably impact on the storyline at later dates. Jackaroos, barstaff, station managers, American GIs, aboriginals are all fleeting flotsam as Buckler or Colts move through the landscape.

It’s a tragic story in that it deals with mundane, transitory lives and all too human disappointments.

Randolph Knox is the dapper success in Isabel Junction, “…a town of rusting metal roofs and termite-eaten verandah posts emblematic of the Australian scene.”  But his life is unfulfilled, in love as he has been with Colts since they were youths at Eureka. Colts’ boss Alan Hookes struggles to understand purpose, surrounded as he is by a household of women and daughters only interested in life in Sydney.

But all the characters are left yearning for something more than they have. Fred, illegitimate son of Dunc Buckler, is part time Shakespeare thespian, part time architect but master of neither: wealthy landowner Merrington needs to prove his worth to the locals.

When Colts Ran is not an easy read. It’s myriad of rough, hard-nosed characters and their flawed lives. It’s confusing and, in its determination to be Made In Australia (its original working title) can be, at times, exclusive. But at other times the novel is deeply poetic and a paean to change, the maleness of life in middle twentieth century rural Australia and the associated friendships and loyalty.

Shortlisted for both the 2011 Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s Literary Award, When Colts Ran lost out on both occasions to Kim Scott and his That Deadman Dance.

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