David Ireland's The Glass Canoe won Australia's most prestigious literary award, The Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 1976. But the book — and Ireland himself — fell into a kind of obscurity. It has only recently been brought back into print thanks to Text Publishing's Text Classics imprint, where, I am sure, it has found an entirely new audience.
But let's be frank — this is a confronting book, probably one of the most confronting I've ever read, because it presents an entirely male world, one which revolves around alcohol, violence, sex and sexism. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor is it for those who are easily offended, especially by outdated and misogynistic attitudes to women.
The world inside a pub
The book is set entirely in a pub — The Southern Cross hotel, situated in Northmead, western Sydney, to be precise — which is described as follows:
It was home. The world and history passed by on wheels. Life stayed outside. Babies were started, and born. Weddings, shootings, promotions, dismissals, hungers, past and future — all were outside.
So the pub is seen as a refuge, a home away from home. But it's not a place of comfort — indeed, it's a kind of metaphor for a different, more sinister, kind of world.
At night the Southern Cross often looked, even to me, an illuminated tomb. A sort of past solidified in masonry. The traffic tried to run by all the faster to stay in the present or the past might grab them. But to us, our tomb was where life was: outside was a world fit only to die in. The dark, a live monster, leaned on the roof and tried the glass doors. Its eyes were black, fathomless as death.
It is narrated by Lance, better known as Meat Man (a nickname which refers to the size of his penis — I told you this was a very male book), who lets us in to this secretive world inhabited by Australian males from the early 1970s, most of whom are poor, working class types who "drink to erase everything". He does this by recounting dozens of stories about the men who frequent the pub as well as his own adventures in drink and lust.
The book doesn't follow the normal conventions of the novel — it's a series of short fragments and episodes, some of them less than a page long, each one a separate tale in its own right. It feels disjointed at first, but there are common threads and themes running throughout, so that Ireland builds up a rich tapestry, albeit focused on action, not plot.
And the intimate nature of the prose — almost as if Lance is confiding his darkest secrets to you, and you alone — makes it a compelling read.
Adventures in alcohol
The Glass Canoe — the title, by the way, refers to a beer-filled glass "and after however many glasses it took, the glass got bigger and bigger, we stepped into the glass and claimed our freedom to float away" — might be set in a pub, but it does not glorify drinking. If anything, it shows how alcohol dependence ruins lives and livelihoods.
It presents the drinker as a kind of underclass, even if Lance can't quite identify with that view himself. Indeed, he thinks it quite humorous when his old school friend Sibley starts hanging around the pub studying the clientele for a university thesis. When he asks him how his investigations are going, Sibley says "I'm finding all sorts of things. This is another dimension here."
‘They [drinkers] can’t survive in our world and in the future, Lance,’ he said kindly. ‘The non-drinker is a member of the civilised races: the drinker, no matter the language he speaks, belongs to one identifiable inferior race spread throughout the planet. But to go on, some past authorities say that to speak of intelligence in respect of drinkers is a misnomer; they present hardly any of the phenomena of intellect. They are unreflective and averse to abstract reasoning and sustained mental effort.’ ‘You’re describing a drunk.’ ‘Lance, baby, that’s when a drinker’s a drinker for Christ’s sake.’
Outdated attitudes to women
Lance also struggles to see how his misogynistic attitudes to women are anything other than normal — although he does warn the reader that "if this is not your style of thing, skip this paragraph" when he describes a trip to a strip club, so he clearly has boundaries. And while he appears very much besotted with "his Darling", he still sleeps with other women whenever the opportunity presents itself. For Lance, and all the other randy blokes in this book, it is all about quantity, not quality.
Indeed, women are generally sneered at — "Did you know that on a golf course the ladies hit off from different tees, closer to the hole? They haven’t protested yet at the inequality" — unless, of course, they work behind the bar and/or look and behave like men.
But lest you think this book sounds rather hard-hitting, I have to confess I got quite a lot of laughs out of it. There's a laconic sense of humour that keeps it from becoming a juggernaut of angst. And Lance, for all his faults, is a likable character — he might be sexist and enjoy a fight, but he stands up for the underdog, feels sympathy for the old men in the pub, appreciates Sibley's attempts to better himself through education.
In short, even though The Glass Canoe is essentially about men drinking, fighting and shagging, I'm glad I read it. In its depiction of another time and another place it is very good, but as a raw glimpse of a macho mindset it is exceptional.
For another female take on this novel, please do read Lisa at ANZLitLover's brilliant review.
I read this book as part of Australian Literature Month, which runs throughout April 2013. The idea is to simply celebrate and help promote literature from my homeland and to encourage others to do the same. Anyone can take part. All you need to do is read an Australian book or two, post about Australian literature on your own blog or simply engage in the conversation on this blog and on Twitter using the hashtag #OzLitMonth. If you don't have a blog, don't worry — you just need to be willing to read something by an Australian writer and maybe comment on other people's posts. You can find out more here.