I can still remember reading All in the Blue Unclouded Weather when I was 12, and then the excitement I felt when the librarian at our tiny Catholic school, Mrs Kerr, told me that there was a sequel. She put it on reserve for me, and I read Dresses of Red and Gold when I was 13. Finally, when I read The Sky in Silver Lace at 16, I remember the curious melancholy I felt long afterwards.
By then I was at my fourth school in five years, a selective-entry, all-girls high school in the city, not all that different from Cathy and Heather Melling’s. I missed my librarian friend, our Book Week dress-ups, and the innocence of those earlier days. More so than any other contemporary “teenage girl fiction” of the time, Robin Klein’s trilogy conveyed for me most accurately and achingly, the transition from girlhood to young adulthood, from naïve hope to acute awareness of one’s class and circumstances.
The Melling sisters — like Alcott’s March sisters and Austen’s Bennett sisters — are a quartet of girls who become women during the course of tribulation. There is Grace the beauty, Cathy the tomboy, Heather the performer and Vivienne the dreamer, all growing up in an Australia that has just seen the Great Depression and two world wars.
Unlike the Marches or Bennetts, however, there is no superimposed didactic altruism in Klein’s Melling sisters: she depicts their secret selfish longings and embarrassments of poverty with such honesty that you can’t help rooting for these girls.
In fact, with its cast of supercilious relatives, its small-town scuttlebutting and girlish rivalries, Klein’s trilogy resonated strongly with me, an Asian girl with refugee parents growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. It reminds me now, as an adult, that no matter how genteel our veneer, we are all come from a history of feral battlers just trying to make it.
In all the years since my first reading, there was a peripheral character I never forgot, not her name, appearance or her circumstances: Phyllis Gathin. Phyllis’ character contained all that was true and devastating about the forced humility of the destitute. Back in the country town, the Mellings were poor but not as poor as the Gathins.
Phyllis does not make an appearance in this book, now that the Mellings have moved to the city, but her legacy lingers. To now be the recipients of charity—second-hand discounted uniforms, lodgings, a housing-commission flat—deeply wounds the collective pride of the Melling sisters. Yet their longings bring vast ingenuity and insight into their lives.
Instead of making them insipid whiners, the girls’ desire for material things is the catalyst for their resourcefulness, self-agency, energy, inventiveness and even charity. They invent games, make things, write stories. However, city life confines the Mellings to those far-flung suburbs without community, and the girls have never felt so alienated. Even when they visit the city centre, they find it to be a hostile place, peopled by mean relatives, expensive shops and unfriendly characters.
‘Dirty big chunks of steel wool’
As she was in the first books of the trilogy, Vivienne is the heartbeat of this novel. As the youngest sister, she is allowed to have uncomplicated feelings of sadness and longing for Wilgawa, Klein’s fictional country town that represents the warmth of a post-war rural community. The “sky in silver lace” is Vivienne’s euphemistic metaphor for the encroaching hard times. Cathy, always to the point, finds Vivienne’s diary and mocks her for it:
If you mean rainclouds, they don’t look a bit like lace—more like dirty big chunks of steel wool. Not to mention all the other soppy stuff about leaving Wilgawa that came earlier…
Vivienne’s loss of innocence happens over a gentle gradient, like the seasons changing from autumn to winter. As their physical world contracts — to a few back rooms in Captain Fuller’s house, to petty Aunt Elsa’s where they are unwelcome guests, and finally their own tiny flat — so do their movements. Heather’s magnetic personality is confined to the stage, Cathy’s adroit rambling limbs to the hockey court, and even poor Isobel is a fish out of water on her visit to the city.
By the end of the day, she is trailing Vivienne and lagging behind her now-insufferable cousins who rabbit on and on about their new school. Your heart breaks for Isobel’s “squashed voice”.
Gone are the hijinks of previous novels — Isobel’s mild case of kleptomania, Cathy’s three-storeyed treehouse, the girls’ ghost-hunting — but in their place is deeper character development. We gain insight into Connie Melling, the loving and once wonderfully eccentric mother — maker of doyley flatteners, creator of poems
for bereaved community members — now burdened with a weightier responsibility, as she singlehandedly navigates a changed city with her four daughters.
Her stoicism and resilience is now tested in a world filled with hostile, stressed-out, easily irritated adults who know very well how tenuous their jobs, statuses and hold on their homes are. Oldest sister Grace, a minor character in the previous books, now comes into her own in a powerful, dignified chapter.
Characters of grit and mettle
All three books unabashedly focus on the interests of burgeoning teenage girls: their preoccupations with dolls, bridesmaids’ dresses, little blue rowboats, fancy school tunics, delicious teacakes, matinee-movie stars and Tennysonian maidens floating down a river stream.
Each chapter is filled to the brim with delightful sartorial details — Grace’s purple cape and hat, Cathy’s pinafore, Isobel’s Bonnie Prince Charles outfit, Dior’s New Look — at a time when “respectable people” went out in public with white hankies, gloves and a hat.
But to dismiss these as books dealing with shallow feminine pursuits is to say that Little Women is about four girls who sew while they wait for their father to come home from the war. The gutsiness of these Australian siblings lies in their ability to find extraordinary plea- sure in ordinary existence during a time of uncertainty and flux.
The Melling girls’ larger-than-life larrikin father is absent in this final book, and the only males to appear are three minor characters: crotchety old Captain Fuller who provides Mrs Melling with work, a kindly old man who restores her self-regard and one preening young narcissist who bores the sweet bejesus out of Heather.
These are not girls who live for the male gaze, and they probably wouldn’t care what that was. Too many authors self-consciously inject doses of feminist fuel into their young-adult novels. Such is the skill and integrity of Klein that she doesn’t mar the magic of her historical fiction with political anachronisms, but rather creates full characters made of grit and mettle who are dealing with their world at their time.
While the endgame for the Bennett sisters was matrimony, and for the March sisters domesticity (Good Wives), what will become of the Melling sisters and their cousin?
This last book is the most bittersweet volume, because the reader knows that after this we will never hear from them again. We leave them forever moving towards the middle of the last century. But we know that whatever they are doing, wherever they end up, their personalities will always triumph over their circumstances.
Robin Klein’s trilogy of Young Adult novels about the Melling sisters, All in the Blue Unclouded Weather (1991), Dresses of Red and Gold (1992) and The Sky in Silver Lace (1995) will be republished as Text Classics from February 27.
American journalist Hunter S Thompson is a mythical figure, partly by his own design, and partly, perversely, against his wishes. Norman Mailer called him “a legend in successful self-abuse.” Biographer E. Jean Carroll reported Thompson’s daily working regime, which allegedly started at 3pm.
While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.
Compare this with the drug collection of Raoul Duke, the first person narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either and two dozen amyls … The only thing that really worried me was the ether.
The parallels between the Duke persona and Thompson’s own life have led to a conflation of the two. This arises in part from the approach which Thompson made famous: Gonzo journalism.
Far from being an objective observer of the action, the Gonzo journalist becomes a participant in it and reports on it subjectively. Thompson went further: he was often a provocateur. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a fictionalised account of two trips Thompson made with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta from LA to Las Vegas.
It was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 under the byline of Raoul Duke, but Thompson’s name does appear. Presented with a photo of himself, Duke identifies it as Thompson: a “vicious, crazy kind of person”.
Rather than effacing himself as a chronicler of the scene, Thompson injects himself, via his Duke persona, as a character. Acquaintance Peter Flanders observed:
Hunter was a theatre. He was a roving kind of theatre. He was not just a writer … he was an actor. He was creating his own subject matter.
The aim of Gonzo journalism and other kinds of New Journalism was to write factual reporting that read like fiction. In Thompson’s case, the truth was outrageous, and then it was outrageously embellished by means of fantasy and hallucination.
What is the book about?
“It was time,” says Duke, “for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.” The novel confronts “the brutish realities of this foul Year of Our Lord, 1971,” when the “whole scene” consisted of the state of America as a nation, the squandered promise of the 1960s counter-culture, and the inadequacies of traditional journalism to cope with the chaos that confronted it.
As a reading experience, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild torpedo ride through some of the strangest scenes in American fact, or American fiction. Or whatever bizarre hybrid of fact and fiction this book represents.
In terms of its plot, the book falls into two halves. In the first, Duke, a journalist, and Doctor Gonzo, his attorney, travel at high speed in a red convertible from LA to Las Vegas so Duke can cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He fails conspicuously to do so, and they wander in a drug-addled state among the various sensory intensities of Vegas. They behave despicably, “burning the locals, abusing the tourists and terrifying the help.”
They thoroughly trash the hotel room and run up a stupendous room service tab. They destroy the car. They flee before there is a reckoning. Duke, however, encounters a highway patrol officer who interferes with his plans, so he turns back to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He feels it is his obligation to represent the drug culture.
The conference only serves to demonstrate how out of touch law enforcement is. The second half of the book follows much the same trajectory as the first, with the pair compounding their felonies of (statutory) rape, fraud and larceny.
Duke and Doctor Gonzo must be admired for their sheer bravado, if condemned for the political unsoundness of their behaviour. The novel alternates hilarious scenes of madcap knavery with elegiac essays on the lost promise of the 1960s, but it does not become bogged down. This is because of its gleeful, manic energy.
Tom Robbins says:
It lifts you out of your seat when you’re reading it. It’s out of control … in an exhilarating, hallucinatory way.
Anthony Bourdain has said:
Thomson’s wild, hyperbolic prose … showed me not only a whole new way to see and think about things … a whole new way to live. I embraced the doctor wholeheartedly, developing a lifelong love for melodrama, overstatement, lurid imagery and damaged romanticism.
Christopher Lehman-Haupt described the novel’s “mad, corrosive poetry.”
The setting of Las Vegas is exploited for the surreal images it offers, and because the protagonists’ enormities are accepted. As Raoul Duke says: “the mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized.”
This might not be as disturbing as it is if the trip to Vegas were not also a quest for the American Dream.
The American Dream
Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s trip is “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Their ostensible mission is covering the Mint 400, but their actual goal is ill defined:
What was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.
Alger was a 19th-century author who typically wrote rags to riches stories; in Vegas, his relevance is about greed as a distinctively American quality. In fact, Duke eventually finds the “main nerve” of the American Dream in the Circus-Circus casino. The owner, who dreamt of running away to join the circus as a child, now has his own circus, and a licence to steal. He, it is said, is the model for the American Dream. If this seems cynical, so it should.
Other references to the contemporary condition of America include discussions of Nixon’s perfidy about the Vietnam War. Of Thompson, the anti-war Democrat Senator George McGovern once said:
Hunter was a patriot… [but] he was not a jingoist. He hated that war in Vietnam with a passion. He hated the hypocrisy of the establishment. Basically, I think he wanted to see this country live up to his ideals. And he wanted us to do better.
One of the things Thompson wanted America to do better was fulfil the promise of the 1960s. Some of the novel’s most trenchant criticisms are levelled at counter-cultural gurus like Timothy Leary who, it seems to Duke, set up new regimes of authoritarianism to replace the old. One of the novel’s most famous passages reveals its bitter nostalgia:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. … It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. …. Our energy would simply prevail. … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Finally, the novel addresses a contemporary crisis in journalism. Duke starts out full of his professional obligation to “cover the story,” but quickly abandons all pretence. Throughout the narrative, there are traumatic encounters with traditional news coverage, from mendacious TV broadcasts about the war in Laos and Vietnam to newspaper reports on police killing anti-war protesters, to grotesque stories about the consequences of drug taking. “Against this heinous background,” says Duke, “my crimes were pale and meaningless.”
This culminates in a cynical statement at the end:
Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? …The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.
Thompson might proudly have self-identified as a misfit, but he was also a journalist, so this seems a strangely self-castigating statement, until you consider what it was that he did for journalism, which was to redefine it. This is his contribution to the American canon.
Pondering all this in the age of Donald Trump, another of Thompson’s books comes to mind: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he covered the campaign of the Democratic Party’s nominee McGovern (the Presidential race was eventually won by Richard Nixon). Profoundly critical of the relationship between political processes and the media, this collection of articles again attacks both America and journalism at the same time.
Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that we need Gonzo journalism to help us understand the bizarre nature of US national politics today.