Accidental expert recounts misadventures
THE first 15 pages of this three-part book, set in the 1980s, are littered with somewhat pretentious literary allusions to writers as diverse as Sartre, Wordsworth, Patrick White and Alexander Pope. Name-dropping is not necessarily the best way to begin but, then again, the title of the book is ‘False Start’.
Yet as this unreliable memoir of many things best forgotten gathers pace, Mark O’Flynn’s laconic Australian comedy exhibits a voice and a compelling timbre of its own.
He manages to capture, in this memoir, what it’s like for a so-called “accidental expert with an arts degree”, namely himself, to work in an isolated quarry in outback central Queensland. This is a world of beer, men, meat, flies and 40C heat.
As O’Flynn documents, at night in one of their prefabricated Nissen huts, all the men in the mining camp bar one obsessively played pontoon – for wads of money – sweating over their cards in the still, stifling air.
The camp is a place that attracts “strange little bush bees, thirsty little insects that did not sting, but that also loved the saliva at the corners of your mouth”.
For some reason he does not mention that the honey from these stingless native bees, which graced Australia well before white invasion and which we happen to keep in inner-Sydney Redfern, is absolutely orgiastic. Perhaps O’Flynn wasn’t able to gather, and taste, the tiny amount of honey they produce each year.
His only previous work experience – as a part-time cherry picker – hardly prepared this naive 22-year-old Melburnian for life in the Queensland bush. And, at first glance, it did not seem helpful for someone who wanted primarily to write poetry and plays on his battered yellow typewriter. He also had a yen to perform.
In the latter parts of this rib-tickling book, O’Flynn reveals that while living with an acting ensemble in the Victorian countryside and suffering from tinnitus as a result of the deafening mining machinery of his Queensland job, he acted in a play – ‘The Curse of the Werewolf’ – and wrote another – ‘Paterson’s Curse’. While in the former he was gravely miscast as a lycanthropic Irishman who played the penny whistle, the latter was based on that noxious purple weed that is such a problem for farmers and is poisonous to horses.
To say ‘Paterson’s Curse’ bombed in the country town O’Flynn calls Woop-Woop is an understatement. But as the author says, even though it was actually utter tripe, as time went by it became merely a play that had some problems.
Yet even in Woop-Woop beauty was to be found: “The mud wasps building their nests against the eaves; the leaves of the wild roses fading to yellow.”
The reality is that so much of the past is so forgettable and memory is indeed fickle, and often beyond recapture and recall.
The last 50 pages of ‘False Start’, set in Sydney, Portugal and Ireland, are deeply touching and utterly hilarious. In the main they focus on O’Flynn and his then girlfriend, now wife, Barb, acting as a proxy for her Catholic father Davo – a fervent member of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima – who was too unwell to leave Australia.
Their joint mission involved transporting from Lisbon to a chap called Tom McCarthy, in rural Ireland, a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary and delivering a large winter overcoat to another Irishman called Michael Sweeney, who fed them a dinner of soda bread, corned beef and cake.
In the end it was more than worthwhile taking this strange, obsessive journey with O’Flynn who, after a somewhat false start, finishes strongly. As I savoured his richly comic account, I was at times reminded of John Kennedy Toole’s ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’, which was published (posthumously) only because of the overwhelming efforts of his mother. Unlike Toole’s, O’Flynn’s mother does not get a guernsey in ‘False Start’. But yes, John Kennedy Toole and also, it seems, Mark O’Flynn, are not made up but actual names. Although, unlike Toole, O’Flynn remains alive to give us more, we hope.
False Start: A Memoir of Things Best Forgotten
By Mark O’Flynn
Finch Publishing, 255pp, $29.99
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent book is the satirical novel ‘Fool’s Paradise’.
‘The Weekend Australian’, 23-24 February 2013, REVIEW, Books pp 22-23