My introduction to the writings of Roger McDonald was through his 2010 novel, When Colts Ran. With its immersive sense of place and character in a small Australian outback town over a period of time and history, When Colts Ran is a sweeping paean to rural Australian life. But it’s no easy read.
McDonald’s earlier work, Water Man (published in 1993), also explores similar themes of displacement, disillusionment and uncertainty with its overlapping narratives of characters and events 50 years apart.
Mal Fitch is a successful Sydney theatre director native to Logan’s Reef, a dry, desolate Red Centre settlement. Mal returns every summer to work behind the bar at The Criterion Hotel – the only pub in a town now dying on its feet. His father is the near legendary water diviner Gunner Fitch, long dead, killed in World War II. It is Gunner’s rivalry with wealthy William D’Inglis, owner of the local flourmill, that continues to have repercussions on Logan’s Reef and the Fitch and D’Inglis families.
More than 50 years earlier, Gunner was contracted to source water on the Croppdale property of the D’Inglis’ family. Instead, he went off to war and was blown up at the Battle of El Alamein. But Fitch knew there was water – and a lot of it – deep below the surface of the local rocky landscape. But now no-one knows where to bore – and the parched land and the few remaining residents are desperate. Like When Colts Ran, Water Man is no easy read. But, unlike the later book, Water Man is not particularly enjoyable. A litany of unpleasant characters with little or no redeeming features populates Logan’s Reef both past and present, with the centenarian William D’Inglis the cohesive element to the storyline. It is he that continues Gunner’s strange legacy.
The characters themselves are undoubtedly affected by the barren, arid landscape, a brutal environment of desperation, meanness and general unpleasantness. It is not just the drought-ridden soil that needs the replenishment of water. And Water Man does elicit change when the waters do eventually arrive. An almost magical change takes place among even the bitterest of men (there’s very few womenfolk), a modern day fable of our time. It’s just a pity that more investment in the fate of the locals had been garnered.
Water Man was one of only three novels shortlisted for the 1994 Miles Franklin award. McDonald, along with David Malouf’s superb Remembering Babylon lost out to Rodney Hall and The Grisly Wife.