Australian Tragic is about a nation that began its life as a stage for misfortune and ever since has struggled to outgrow its birthright.
These are gripping tales that take us into the heart of this country: tales of genuine catastrophe, of grand chances gone astray, of fools and their plans pathetically undone, of heartbreaking sadness and violent loss, and of both goodness and human evil.
From Aboriginals being curios in an American circus to the story of Martin Bryant at Port Arthur, and from Bob Bungey, who survived The Battle of Britain, but couldn’t face life when his young wife suddenly died soon after he came home, to the doctor who died minutes before he was to deliver a paper revealing the secret of using monkey glands to improve human health and stamina, and sexual virility – all these stories are told in a gripping narrative style, driven by eyewitness testimony, a solid sense of place, and a mood of impending doom.
And we thought we knew our history
THE AUSTRALIAN – Roy Williams | September 12, 2009
Penny dreadful approach gives crime back to the people
I HAD low expectations of this book. Recent Australian specimens of the true-crime genre – at least, those I have sampled – have not had much to recommend them. Most combined cliche-ridden writing and sloppy research with salacious attention to the nastiest sorts of detail.
Jack Marx’s Australian Tragic is in a class apart. There are 20 tales in all and the subjects range widely, from famous national tragedies (the Black Friday bushfires of 1939, for instance, and the Port Arthur massacre of 1996) to some scandalous cases that reached the criminal courts.
There are also heart-rending private dramas largely unknown to, or long forgotten by, the public.
To be sure, many of the episodes recounted in the book are deeply disturbing, some bordering on the grisly and grotesque.
The common thread is intense human suffering, but this is not an exercise in exploitative populism. Marx is writing serious history, though it’s far removed from the traditional textbook style. He contends that “history (is) not just about education. It’s about storytelling, wonder, and pointless, amoral voyeurism.” That’s right, but to an extent Marx is underselling himself: I found nothing pointless or amoral in this book.
One of Marx’s aims is to discredit what he describes as “the ‘lucky country’ myth, (the) pantomime in which Australia is forever cast as a kingdom of eternal heroism and good”. He is not offering Australian readers yet another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. Nor are we meant to revel, cosily, in the evil and misfortune of others.
The tone of many true-crime books is self-righteous and complacent, if not ghoulish, but Marx does not judge. He narrates.
It helps enormously that he is a skilled literary craftsman. A prolific and accomplished freelance journalist, he won a thoroughly deserved Walkley award in 2006 for his feature, “I was Russell Crowe’s stooge”. My hopes for Australian Tragic skyrocketed the moment I learned its author was the same bloke who’d written that piece about Crowe, which was a savagely clever indictment of the cult of celebrity.
Australian Tragic is clever on another level. Marx declares an intention “to present real stories in the sensational ‘dime novel’ style of old”.
Although he came to include accounts of some well-known events, his original purpose was “to unearth stories that had not been widely distributed and present them in the somewhat sensational style of the old ‘penny dreadfuls’ “. By disciplining himself to write in a distinctive old-fashioned form, infused with 21st-century knowledge and sensibility, Marx transcends the genre.
American film director Todd Haynes did much the same thing in his 2002 masterpiece, Far from Heaven. Superficially, it was a homage to Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s. But Haynes was not indulging in parody or nostalgia for its own sake. As British critic Ed Halliwell has astutely remarked of the film, “the style serves the content” and “when you get into it, the emotional experiences of the film’s distant lives are timeless and powerfully affecting”. Marx achieves precisely this effect in Australian Tragic. I would be a spoilsport if I said too much about the tales themselves. However, a few examples should give the flavour.
One of the most harrowing concerns Sydney’s Luna Park ghost-train fire of 1979, which claimed the lives of (among others) a father and his two boys.
Marx recounts events from the point of view of the wife and mother of the family, Jenny Poidevin, who decided at the last moment to sit out the ride. It’s a tale genuinely biblical in its sad, eerie power and it inspired the book’s striking front cover.
Two other pieces made an especially strong impression. One describes the sinking of the SIEV-X refugee boat on October 19, 2001. Three hundred and fifty-three people drowned, and Marx justly calls it “a truly heartbreaking story from modern times”. It occurred during the shameful federal election campaign of that year but, sagely, Marx eschews politics to recount the horror from the perspective of a survivor, Amal Hassan Basry. She spent a long night floating in the dark expanse of the Indian Ocean, grieving for her teenage son. Before being rescued, she witnessed some horrific yet awe-inspiring things.
Another captivating piece relates to the investigation into the murder of 16-year-old Stacey Lee Kirk at a Maitland fairground on February 17, 1984. As Marx observes in his acknowledgments section, Stacey Lee’s father, Trevor Kirk – like Jenny Poidevin – “knows of a life that, thankfully, few of us will experience”.
Some stories are more quirky than horrific. One concerns a reported alien abduction that took place near Grafton in 1996, another the “rise and fall of Marcus Montana, a true rock legend” in the Sydney music scene of 1989. There’s also an entertaining account of the history of the so-called Mertz Collection of Australian paintings, compiled by an eccentric American millionaire in the 1960s. This piece, and three or four others, afford Marx scope to indulge in some darkly hilarious celebrity bashing and to point to the tabloid media leeches who idolise and destroy the famous. Crowe is not the only big name to have come off second-best from an encounter with Marx.
But Marx is at his most impressive telling the stories sad and straight. He displays unusual empathy for the hopeless, the exploited and the downtrodden. Often his empathy extends not only to the victims of evil, but to the perpetrators as well. Despite their destructive, sometimes hideous behaviour, we grieve for and with drunkards, fraudsters, egotists, home-wreckers, bank robbers, even gay-bashers and mass murderers. Everyone has a story to tell.