The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Cloudstreet
 by Tim Winton.
Cloudstreet
by Tim Winton

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

An all too familiar trope of contemporary fiction is the
dysfunctional family.  If you undertook a detailed
survey of novels written over the last thirty years or
so, this might be the single most prevalent theme of
them all—you’re not a character worth your salt these
days if Mom or Dad didn't scar your young psyche
from the cradle, intrude malevolently on your adult
life, or just disappear somewhere along the line.   
Tolstoy might have had war
and adultery for his subjects,
Austen had courtship and
marriage, but in the fictions
of
Jonathan Lethem,  Zadie
Smith, Jonathan Franzen,
Richard Russo, and so many
other leading literary lights
of the modern day, we don’t
need Napoleon or zombies to
wreak havoc, since our blood
relations do such a fine job on
their own.

Then along comes Tim Winton,
who offers an intriguing twist on
the whole matter.  In his best known book
Cloudstreet (1991),
Winton somehow manages to deliver up the
hopelessly and
charmingly dysfunctional family.   Or better yet, two
dysfunctional families—the Pickleses and the Lambs—who
share the same roof, and are peculiar and cursed enough for
everyone in both clans to remain messed up for life.  Somehow
they come through with flying colors, albeit not with your
clichéd cinematic happily-ever-after ending, but in a plausible,
unadorned way that might very well resemble (horrors!) your
own life.   

Sam Pickles has inherited a sizeable, if somewhat ramshackle
house on Cloud Street, but a clause in the will prevents him
from reselling the property for twenty years.  The covenant is
probably a blessing—Pickles is an inveterate gambler, but not
a lucky one, and would invariably squander away any money
made on real estate.  He frets about destiny, or what he prefers
to call the "shifty shadow," which more often than not treats
him and his family unkindly.  On the morning he lost most of
his hand in a boating mishap, Sam had an ominous feeling
from the moment he got up in the morning.  After cogitating
later on the sequence of events, he has come up with this bit of
after-the-fact wisdom: he should have stayed in bed that day.  
Nor has Lady Luck repaid him in his more recent waking
hours.  She remains a fickle, sometimes cruel mistress—most
notably during his frequent visits to the racetrack.  Not that
his inveterate bad luck has stopped Sam from betting again
and again.  

Prevented from selling the Cloud Street property, he decides
to make money by bringing in a tenant to share the large
home.  The Lambs, who soon take over half of the building, are
almost as bedeviled by destiny as their landlords.   Their son
Samson, nicknamed Fish almost drowned in an accident that
left him permanently brain-damaged.  But the Lambs are God-
fearing and industrious, and they manage to establish a small
thriving market, which they operate out of the ground floor of
the house.   

An uneasy détente between the two clans seems destined to
develop into outright feuding.  Yet hostilities gradually give
way to begrudging tolerance, and ultimately cooperation.   
Finally, a marriage between the families cements them
together.  Issues and what folks quaintly call "baggage" linger
on.  Quick Lamb, Fish’s brother, battles with guilt over his role
in his sibling’s disability.  Rose Pickles resents her father's
irresponsibility and her mother's alcoholism.  A subplot about
a serial killer seems oddly out of place, almost as if he has
stumbled into this book from another novel, but Winton
eventually finds a way of allowing even this macabre interlude
to advance the individual stories—and broaden the hearts and
minds—of his cast of characters.

In a novel with so many tragic or horrific elements—death,
disability, dismemberment, murder, not to mention any
number of unseemly domestic issues—Winton is oddly
disinterested in giving them much emotional resonance.    The
recurring theme of destiny, the "shifty shadow" of Sam Pickles’
s musings, imparts an almost Attic sense of fatalism mixed with
a celebration of dogged endurance.   Yet ultimately this is a
novel about coping, acceptance and forgiveness—sometimes
that most difficult kind, self-forgiveness.   Winton succeeds by
presenting his cast of characters compassionately but
honestly, telling his tale without falling into the sentimental
clichés and predictable plot resolutions that most authors
would fall back on in such a story.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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Tim Winton:
Cloudstreet

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The Mambo Kings Play
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More to come


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