Tony Birch’s latest collection of stories is full of hard lives lived along side-tracks, on back-roads, in cobbled bluestone allies and laneways. The scenarios will be familiar to anybody who has endured life beyond a Boundary street. Birch’s characters are outsiders, misfits, the crooked and routinely outcast, the too regularly disregarded and vulnerable. There is no wankery, no posturing in Birch’s pen. Instead, readers will discover stories imbued with harsh beauty, dignity, ephemeral hope, resilience, and when the occasion calls, blunt brutality.
I suspect Common People, like Birch’s earlier work in Shadowboxing and Ghost River, will not “be for everybody”, and here I’m thinking of the overly sensitive types swishing around the current gentrified iterations of Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. For Birch is Old Fitzroy, both in person and work. In fact, there are stories within Common People like “Liam” and “Frank Slim” that read as though they may have emerged during the writing of the interlinked short stories that made-up Shadowboxing: a bygone era of factory smog and slum rows, of six-o’clock swills and sly-kicks. It’s easy to become immersed in these yarns as they do what great short stories should do, which is steadily unfold, gain volume, extend time, proffer larger worlds with deeper meanings with precision and brevity. But Old Fitzroy is Birch’s forte, he has his eye well and truely in with these sorts of settings and narratives.
More daring are the likes of “Party Lights”– a psychotic escalation in flat red countryside, replete with a giant flying spanner, a dose of local political corruption, and a vanishing house somewhere outside of town –, and the magical-realism of “Colours”, which sees an incarcerated Aboriginal boy elude his captors with the aide of a long-departed grandfather. Another highlight is “Worship”, which provides a more recent depiction of Gertrude and Smith streets. It reads as though it transpires in morning glare, sharp light glancing off a hundred glass panes amidst the turmoil of alcohol-wrecked relationships and parallel misfortunes. Though from the ruin of these characters’ past lives, an optimism surfaces and rises.
Common People will no doubt be described elsewhere as visceral, confronting writing buoyed by humour, easy exchanges of dialogue and unique perspective. It is all of these things. But what is also conveyed within each story is the importance of each of these values in the context of the characters’ resilience to their particular circumstances, often unfolding before a backdrop of affliction, abuse and tragedy. This is the heart and decency that Birch generates within Common People.
Common People is published by UQP and is available now
18 September 2017
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