What Can Be Read and What Can Only Be Seen in Tim Winton’s Fiction

About half way through Tim Winton's novel That Eye, the Sky, the mysterious arrival Henry Warburton tries to explain why he has come- out of the blue, one might say - to help the Flack family in their distress. ì'It's time I stated my purpose. I haven't meant to be deceitful; God has sent me here.' Dead quiet. At the end of the dead quiet Mum says, 'What do you mean?' 'So very hard to explain. I know you won't believe me, but I had a vision.' 'What's that?' I ask. 'It's something you see that no one else sees. It's real, it's there, but only you see it.'î (87) One could say that Warburton has too many visions. He is a lifelong quester who never seems to have found his grail. With a dead mother, a dead wife and a dead girlfriend behind him, he flounders from one vision of what he might be and do to another, with only scant knowledge, it seems, of what he is after. Warburton is a tangle of guilt, sexuality and salvationary 'Christianity' (one hesitates to apply the word too closely to him) who would be as much in place - but no more at home - in the grotesque Deep South of Flannery O'Conner's fiction as in the rural outskirts of Perth. He has fits which he does not remember. His behaviour, despite his efforts to understand it, is compulsive, his motives only barely conscious, largely escaping his comprehension and control. While apparently living under a bridge, he is observed by Ort, the twelve-year-old narrator: He's on his knees with his hands in his lap and his head is all back so that his black hat kind of hangs off and looks like it'll fall at any moment. Sometimes he looks like he's talking because his mouth moves ... His hands are big in his lap. He looks clean enough. Suddenly he reaches behind and pulls up a head of grass and squeezes it in his hands until all the soil falls away, then he just holds it to his face and his lips keep moving. (20) The next time he observes him, Ort exclaims: ìFunny. I can see . . . his . . . I have to look real hard. I'm not far away. It's his thing, his old fella. It's real big and fat, up out of his pants like a periscope. And he's just sitting there in the cool looking at it. Looking at it!î (40) This deliberate conjunction of sexuality and spiritual struggle is nothing new. (One thinks of Heriot, for example, in Stow's To the Islands, or the Reverend Timothy Calderon in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot, both of whom could trace some kind of genesis in Somerset Maugham's short story, 'Rain'). Warburton is one of those characters whose claim to give salvation to others masks the desperation of his own inchoate search for it for himself. But his internal contradiction and conflict provide the narrative with much of its dynamism and tension. After Warburton takes it on himself to nurse the totally incapacitated father of the family, one is unsure when he baths him whether the result will be a drowning (a murder, or a mercy killing?) or a baptism. Perhaps it will be both? In Warburton's tormented and turbulent mind, perhaps drowning the crippled man will indeed be a baptism for him and a mode of entry into the bliss of an afterlife. In fact, neither takes place. Instead Warburton's sexual obsession triumphs over his Good Samaritan obsession, and he exits the novel with Tegwyn, the rough-as-guts sixteen-year-old daughter of the family who is only too glad, it seems, to quit the troubled household.

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Published 1 October 1996 in Volume 17 No. 4. Subjects: Characterisation, Gender roles, Symbolism, Writer's craft, Tim Winton.

Cite as: Taylor, Andrew. ‘What Can Be Read and What Can Only Be Seen in Tim Winton’s Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 1996, doi: 10.20314/als.60b41737a0.