The Dark Wet by Jess Huon. Giramondo 2011
Books editor for The Big Issue and first-time author Chris Flynn recently called on book reviewers to pull no punches (or plaudits) when discussing first books. “The debut novelist should not be afraid of criticism. In fact they should welcome it more than most. No one should be given a ‘free pass’ just because it’s their first book (something I’ve heard reviewers say so many times, it’s depressing.)” To be sure, the size of the hatchet should be commensurate with the circumference of the reputation, but Australian independent authors and publishers are not made of paper-bark. Not to say that he would endorse anything said here, but Flynn’s comments are welcome. I offer this not as a prelude to a hatchet job but as a way of reiterating that the nebulous and elusive goal of all reviewers should be to improve our literary culture.
“Ground’, the first novella, one of three in Jess Huon’s debut The Dark Wet, tells of young painter and erstwhile graffiti artist Jed Harp and the complicated relationship he has with Daniel, his now deceased partner in tagging. Daniel committed suicide by jumping off or out of something but apparently died of exposure. (“‘He was naked, Jed,’ Alexandra whispered. ‘The people who did the autopsy said he would’ve died before he hit the ground.’) We never find out what Daniel jumped off or out of despite the suicide being the locus of the story. There is a certain art to ellipsis and understatement, and Huon sporadically achieves it, but when everything’s under and there’s no statement the reader is left skimming the surface of the text, not entirely knowing what happened before and therefore unable to care what will happen next.
Jed moves to Darwin where he indulges in some casual noble savage stereotyping of Indigenous painters. “He watched the black painters, men and women, sitting cross-legged, legs splayed effortlessly against the dirt; there were no borders on the canvas, working as if the piece wasn’t separated from the rest of the earth around them.” Daniel’s mysterious sister Alexandra offers some interesting counterpoint but she, like the rest of the characters, speaks and thinks in clichés. Struggling to paint and running out of money with a child on the way, Jed’s deus ex machina comes in the form of a Vic Arts grant.
The second sequence, “A Wide Lens” details the intense, sexually ambiguous friendship between adventure-girl Isabelle and gay, ascetic Oliver. Both are desperate to break out of the strictures of their suburban Australian upbringing.
For Isabelle, this means sex and travel to India. While she travels Oliver pines away for her, “ensconsed here, in the bottom of the world, my body shaking like a frail old man( it happened as if out of nowhere) in my childhood bedroom, on a fucking Saturday night.” (her italics) It’s as exciting as it sounds. When Oliver finally travels to San Francisco and orders a large American meal. “Something about this place, it seemed to him…was turned up high…A rambunctious, confident vibe, he thought. Potentially, he wiped his hands on a napkin, overpowering. Overbearing.” We are left wondering, did he or did he not wipe his hands on the napkin?
Huon has a habit of using a single adjective as a whole sentence. “This was someone I once would have thought [of] as hopeless, helpless, spineless. Worthless.” Of repeatedly allowing verb clauses to stand as complete sentences. As I have just done. “She took a breath. Settled deeper back into the chair. Gasped as her feet were picked up off the ground.” These lend a caught-breath quality to the work which is very quickly fatiguing and only rarely exhilarating.
“The Leopard Story”, the last novella, about a young woman seeking spiritual solace in India, shows the most promise. It features some striking passages such as “But offering my body to Jesus, I thought as a sixteen-year-old, would be like saying, ‘Here, Jesus, take this, I’m not sure what to do with it.’” Unfortunately, as happens far too often, the good bits are not left to evoke meaning on their own. This is the sentence immediately following, “An empty gift, like a body without breath, a kiss without any feeling.” Constant explanation and tautological modifiers tire the reader’s patience and question his or her intelligence.
Huon has traveled extensively in India but even so her India remains for the most part a stereotyped country of material poverty and spiritual riches. The most compelling part of “The Leopard Story” occurs when the narrator attempts to find help for a dying man lying in the gutter. The people in the street ignore her pleas for help. She hires a rickshaw but the hospitals refuse to admit him. Finally she finds the man’s son who takes his father away. In this episode we get a glimpse of India not as a spiritual playground for lonely westerners but as a real, human place, populated by good, bad and indifferent people.
– Lucas Smith