Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"What the fuck do you want fuck off out of here or I’ll bite ye!" Debut Mondays at the Wheeler Centre

The Wheeler Centre runs a monthly night called Debut Mondays, where four first-time authors are given a mic and ten minutes to read from their work. As you might imagine it can be a hit and miss. Not all writers publish a first book that warrants a second, and even those who do usually take time to grow into the entertaining performers we nowadays expect them to be.

This year Debut Mondays has moved downstairs to The Moat, the swish café/bar/restaurant that opened late last year. (Along with Embiggen Books down the road, The Moat is apparently part of “the Little Lonsdale St renaissance”.) It’s a much more welcoming, hospitable environment for what is usually a lowkey event – although the March edition was something special.

Robert Power kicked things off entertainingly, confessing he had spent time in his youth as both a revolutionary socialist and a Seventh-Day Adventist. The creepy religious twins in his reading from In Search of the Blue Tiger certainly bespoke this experience.

Next up was Maggie Groff, who had already won my heart by chatting comfortably with yellow-shirted Leon – a local street identity and serial attendee of protests and literary events. Maggie read one of the opening scenes from her book Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters Institute, a light crime read that delves into the world of cults in northern NSW and south Queensland.

Then up stepped Chris Flynn sporting a shaved head, thick black-rimmed glasses and a gentle Irish accent. After a few introductory remarks, he excused himself to “get into character”. He turned his back to the audience, bent at the waist and kept us in amused suspense before reappearing clad in a black balaclava (minus the glasses).

The narrator of Flynn’s Tiger in Eden is Billy Montgomery, a Protestant hard man from Belfast who is hiding out in Thailand, and we were treated to a section of Billy’s experience on vipassana. Vipassana is of course a silent meditation retreat, and Flynn’s frenetic delivery of Billy’s inner monologue – complete with a thick Belfast accent, slang and swear words – made for a hilarious contrast with the supposed calm of his environs.

Since I bought the book afterwards (a first in all my time at the Wheeler Centre), I can reproduce here my favourite section from the reading, when Billy leaves the guided walking meditation and encounters a trail of ants that draw his attention:

“Fuck they’re amazing so they are in a world of their own they don’t give a fuck about us humans and our aul problems, they’ve got attitude too this big red one crawled past me I was sitting on the ground watching them and he must have seen me or something, the wee bastard stops and looks right up at me as if to say what the fuck do you want fuck off out of here or I’ll bite ye. I’m about a thousand times his size or something, I could crush him no bother and he still comes at me all threatening like did you not hear me get to fuck. I jumped up thinking, aye all right pal take it easy I’m going now. I had to sit somewhere else and hope he didn’t come back, the wee fucker set of balls on him like.”

Is Flynn indebted Irvine Welsh? Billy’s mix of humour, boredom and quickness to violence are reminiscent of Trainspotting’s Begbie, and the first-person form accentuates the similarity. I love Welsh anyway, and Tiger in Eden is so well realised it shouldn’t really matter. The sex scenes (of which there are many) and the long full moon party scene are written lightly and convincingly. Billy’s character becomes more sympathetic as his horrific past bubbles up to confont hime, and this process gives the book its structure and abiding sense of hope.

Give Tiger in Eden to a boy aged 15-50 and see if they don’t devour it in one or two sittings.

Of course, the fourth author at our Debut Mondays event (yes, we’re back in The Moat) did not fall into this demographic. She was the 11 year-old Eliza Baker, winner of the 2011 John Marsden Prize for Best Short Story/ First Chapter of a Novel by a writer under the age of 18. As a man in a balaclava dropped F and C-bombs with abandon, Eliza’s dad seemed rather unamused – but her mum was cracking up.

Eliza then stood up and read Chapter One of her novel in progress, South Spirit: The Locket Heart. It was cute and magical, and warmly applauded. After her experience at The Wheeler Centre, however, perhaps Chapter Two will be a bit different.

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