Little Demon, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2018, 260 pages, $29.95
Captain Cook named Cape Byron for ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ Byron, the adventuring Vice-Admiral who sailed past the easternmost point of the Southern Land in 1764, part of that endless English outpouring that shaped today’s topography. The weatherbeaten Enlightenment navigator, for whom beaches were only important insofar as they might provide shelter, would have been surprised by the shire that bears his name – where beaches mean ‘lifestyle’ rather than lee shore, and the aimlessly affluent have replaced both aborigines and landfalling Jack Tars. The landmark lighthouse shines out over nothingness, coda to a continent – and warning of hidden hazards. Private eye Plant blinks at it lugubriously in the opening pages of Little Demon, and at the sleek local resident briefing him, this man in expensive shoes who feels he owns this view, with the lighthouse its ‘iconic seal’ of having arrived.
This is Plant’s sixth outing, the experienced, jaded, subtle, tolerant, well-read ex-novelist a sometime stand-in for the novelist. The country Plant constantly revisits is also the land of Wilding’s lost content, during what Plant/Wilding sees as ‘the best of times’ – cannabis-hazed, countercultural, idealistic, a place of horizons as big as Byron’s, where ‘new writing’ just might have altered everything.
But Wilding believes much of this meretricious newness was in effect old reality repackaged, authorities exchanged rather than discarded. In his 2017 memoir Growing Wild, the author enumerated some of the multiple paradoxes of the Sixties and Seventies, such as how ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’ were enforced, or how un-ironic academics told everyone that ‘there should be no shoulds’. The outcome of these decades-old delusions may be seen in today’s lovely but echoing littoral, a Byron Shire – an Australia, a West – ‘without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility’, where raddled ex-hippies hobble along, ‘wasted, wizened…their eyes as blank and glazed as in the best of times.’ Post-postmodern miasmas keep sweeping in across everything like a chill mist off the Pacific.
Wilding, like his demi-avatar, finds himself adrift, loathing political correctness even more than old ‘anti-communist’ excesses. ‘Even the 1950s’, Plant ruminates, ‘looked more liberal, more progressive, more committed to free speech and open debate than the twenty-first century’. Wilding is a staunch supporter of poetry professor Barry Spurr, with a rare ability to view such imbroglios in context, having written expertly on Johns Dee and Milton, in their lifetimes likewise objects of misrepresentation, suspicion and vitriol, punching-bags on which their respective ages worked out raging insecurities. Beneath the swirling surfaces and tidal races of twenty-first century Australia, Wilding spies shoals – social barrier reefs, all politics somehow ensuring that America will always rule, and the poor shall always be with us, product of neoliberal economics, cultural commodification, neurotic pluralism, and digitalisation designed by and for cognitive elites.
Plant’s client is similar to him in age, but little else – Rock Richmond, a journalist and expert surfer of trends, who has parlayed middling talent into prosperity, and a timeshare in East Coast alternative culture. Richmond’s computer and storage device have been stolen. He has been writing a history of the alternative culture, he informs the underwhelmed investigator, which contains ‘things…no-one has ever dreamed of…revelations. World-shattering stuff.’ He does not want Plant to retrieve the devices (all material is backed up), but instead to use his contacts to alert editors or publishers who might be approached by the thieves. He claims not to be interested in the identity of the perpetrators, or whoever employed them, so long as the material is not published by anyone else. Plant does as he has been bid, but remains perplexed – especially as Richmond is clearly a lightweight, not the kind likely to unearth ‘world-shattering stuff’. And if he had a back-up, why did he need Plant at all – could it have been to put about the idea that he did not have a back-up, to outfox enemies?
Puzzlement turns darker when Plant’s placid rural existence is invaded by an old interlocutor, Fullalove, a paranoid, pasty ‘eternal inner urbanite’ who has come to stay indefinitely, ‘just till things blow over’. Plant knows that nothing ever blows over for Fullalove – but nevertheless tolerates this unhygienic imposition, with all his fussy demands and infectious fears of almost everything. Pace Pascal, “Fullalove contemplated the night sky in unfeigned terror”, and like the Frenchman is determined to fill up all emptiness with theories. Plant finds himself often unable to answer Fullalove’s unquenchable questions, but bats them mostly away as just part of his guest’s emotional armature – until Richmond is shot dead at the lighthouse.
Richmond, Fullalove decides, must have been writing about still-sensitive Cold War secrets – 1960s communes ‘really’ CIA-run, drug-funded military experiments into post-nuclear survivalism. Like all conspiratologists, he takes little-known facts – such as that L.S.D. research was once funded by the U.S. Navy – and links them in ever longer chains of reasoning, some links of which are sound, but which taken as a whole become progressively weaker. This could pall, except there is much humour – such as in Fullalove’s lazy reluctance actually to seek out arms dumps in that hot and insect-haunted landscape. He ‘knows’ they are there, and that is enough for him. ‘This is the age of virtual reality’ he says, exuding clammy self-interest as well as self-satisfaction. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’ The ever-easygoing Plant agrees, content to let questions float away or hover in the air as pregnant possibilities.
Equally suggestive are the frequent literary allusions, of a kind rarely found in noir – Australia, Plant, Wilding, and all the rest of us entangled in ancienter European culture, and unthinkable without it, Wilding one of too few writers determined to keep the flame alive in battering winds. Plant’s case may have started out as a simple criminal investigation, but it swiftly, and unforgettably, shines bright lights onto the way we live, and some of the reasons why.
This review first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission