There’s a scene in Tim Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, where its young anti-hero shoots a red kangaroo. He approaches the animal with a knife, to butcher it for meat, and sees his reflection in its eyes.
“He recognises himself as death,” says Winton. “And it slightly undoes him. He thinks: ‘Is this all I am? Death?’ It’s a pretty deep, philosophical thing to contend with. He’s [discovering] that the business of being a human … is hard and brutal. But he wants to be more than just the bringer of death.”
Tim Winton is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. He’s won the Miles Franklin Award four times (for Shallows in 1984, Cloudstreet in 1992, Dirt Music in 2002 and Breath in 2009); his novel The Riders was shortlisted for one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, in 1995, and his work has been adapted for TV, film and the stage. The Shepherd’s Hut has just been released and – in partnership with The School of Life – Winton is giving talks in Melbourne and Sydney about the book’s central concern: the effects and causes of toxic masculinity, and the short shrift it pays boys and young men. It comes at a time that feels loaded with potential for change, when the world is discussing – perhaps more seriously and openly than in a generation – the terrible effects of partriarchal values. But while the issue is bang-on-trend right now, it’s a subject Winton has dealt with before.
Over a 40-year career Winton has drawn male characters who are adrift in their societies or landscapes, or both. He’s known for examining and exploring the Australian-male experience, and his work has even been described as decidely “blokey”. Winton’s protagonists are often men and boys working out how to be in the world. They encounter situations and people that offer them a chance at redemption, or potential for growth. Sometimes they are boys on the verge of manhood. At others they're men grappling with ideals of masculinity who are either too inexperienced at life or too far gone to be comfortable in their own skin.
And so it is in The Shepherd’s Hut. Jaxie Clackton is a 15-year-old butcher’s apprentice in a forlorn, one-silo Western Australian Wheatbelt town, and things do not look good for him. His father is violent, his mother is dead and his neighbours and teachers have written him off as scum. He’s given them reason to, although their judgments ignore his impoverished options for role models. It’s safer for them to keep their distance. Being tough is how Jaxie measures his worth. Vulnerability is weakness. “You get the sense he’s not afraid of anything because he doesn’t value life enough, because he doesn’t value himself,” says Winton.
Then a violent, life-changing incident sends him running into the Western Australian wilderness. “It’s very hard, austere country, but Jaxie is the fruit of misogyny, and hardness is his measure of character,” Winton explains.
Making it as far as he does in the savage and indifferent Western Australian landscape is not the most miraculous thing that happens to Jaxie Clackton. At his most desperate – almost mad with thirst and exhaustion – an old hermit living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut on the edge of a vast salt lake offers him kindness. Fintan MacGillis is himself a ruined, broken man, and Jaxie flinches at MacGillis’s solicitude at first. Jaxie even despises him for it – to him the old man reeks of vulnerability.
“The scariest thing for Jaxie isn’t sleeping on your own under the biggest sky in the world … it’s the intangible stuff, the thoughts that he has. The things he wonders about,” says Winton.
“I’m curious about those young people who are on the surface a bit unlovely. And I’m saddened by the way we avert our gaze from them. There are certain kinds of boys we wish didn’t exist and we cross the street to avoid them, we put them in detention at school, then they go through the court system and our jails are full of them.”
The Shepherd’s Hut asks if a kid like Jaxie – failed by a damaged interpretation of masculinity – can outrun his background. What makes boys like him? And why are their options for ways to be, to exist in the world, so bleak? Winton is not interested in easy answers, but he has a few ideas.
Part of it, he believes, is the “narrow, unnourishing version of masculinity”, embedded in a still patriarchal society, that is passed down from men to boys.
“We don’t understand the degree to which misogyny is a burden and a trap for boys and men,” Winton says. “If you’ve been brought up with totally misogynistic values, the odds aren’t exactly stacked in your favour, are they?
“If we allow boys to be raised that way we shouldn't be surprised that they’re ticking bombs. Jaxie is yearning for something more. He talks about decency and peace, but you don’t really know if he has the skills to make peace and to nurture decency ... no one’s ever really taught him how.”
Winton had a different boyhood to Jaxie’s, but the archetype is familiar to him. “I went to school with boys like him. And because I live out in the country I see boys like him all the time. I‘ve seen them go to jail, I’ve seen them die in car accidents, I’ve seen them follow the trajectory that no one should be suprised they follow. Jaxie at one level is strange and alien. But at another level I feel like I know him almost too well.
“Perhaps there’s a bit of Jaxie in every boy. Some of us are just lucky, that’s all.”
Winton’s School of Life talks will feature photos of the boys and places Winton draws on in The Shepherd’s Hut. They include images of dying rural communities, “sad, desolate places” bereft of the agricultural industry and people that used to sustain them. Others are of the salt country and woodland Jaxie travels through in Winton’s novel. It’s a part of Western Australia Winton, who grew up in Perth, is fond of, having spent time camping there. But mostly it’s about the boys. And how they’re being failed.
“It’s patently obvious how reckless many men are about the welfare of their sons and grandsons, but there are other boys in your life that are watching you,” says Winton. “And if it’s good enough for a mouth-breathing football player to be a role model for men and women, why isn’t the same force of expectation brought to bear on a carpenter or a stockbroker?
“I think men are derelict in their sense of responsibility. I feel that quite strongly.
“The skill set of hard patriarchal values only get a boy so far. And they certainly only get Jaxie so far.”
Tender Hearts, Sons of Brutes: Tim Winton on lost boys and toxic masculinity is happening in Sydney at 6.30pm on Wednesday March 21 at the Concert Hall at The Concourse in Chatswood (tickets available here), and in Melbourne at 7pm on Friday March 23 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre in South Wharf (tickets available here).