The Boy Behind the Curtain

by Tim Winton

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Last Updated on December 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1241

The title of Australian novelist Tim Winton’s 2016 book The Boy Behind the Curtain has an important secondary meaning. In surfing, the phrase “behind the curtain” refers to the phenomenon when a wave pitches over the surfer’s body, enclosing them in a tubular space behind the curtain of falling water. The surfer’s sense of living in the moment while navigating the uncertainty "behind the curtain" is a prominent theme in Winton’s anthology, which is easier to describe than it is to define. With subjects as varied as his childhood, his conservation efforts, surfing, landscape, faith, and writing, Winton’s essays form a narrative which is part meditation and part memoir. Through vignettes illuminating his history and beliefs, Winton also paints a vivid picture of Australian life in a language rich and specific enough to serve as a natural lexicon.

The first few essays recount formative experiences of Winton’s childhood, starting with “The Boy Behind the Curtain,” which shares its title with the memoir. In the essay, Winton describes himself as a thirteen-year-old boy behind the “terylene” curtain at the window of his parents’ bedroom, his policeman father’s gun cocked at strangers. Although Winton caused no harm with this short-lived pretend play, he questions the toxic masculine culture which led him to equate guns with power. According to Winton, guns and violence offer an illusion of control to powerless people the world over, which is precisely why they must never be easily accessible. He expresses relief that unlike in the United States, the stricter gun laws of Australia ensure most civilians don’t have access to guns.

“Havoc” is a look at how Winton’s father’s nearly fatal accident destabilized Winton’s childhood faith in the safety of the universe. It also describes Winton’s own car crash at eighteen, which left him in recovery for months. These close brushes with life’s unexpectedness, as well as with the atmosphere of hospitals—necessitated because his wife is a nurse—informs Winton’s work as a writer and a conservationist, driving him to seize the present moment in the face of life’s impermanence.

In “A Walk at Low Tide” and “Repatriation,” Winton describes the importance of “paying attention” to the natural landscape. For Winton, to live without this attention is to be “spiritually impoverished.” The first step toward conservation is observation, as illustrated in Winton's daily documentation of the low-tide flats near his seaside town in Western Australia, where "every day there are ephemeral stipples and scratches in the sand.”

At Mount Gibson, a biodiversity hotspot till a century ago, Winton notes how the area has been “bulldozed and burned” for human settlement by successive governments, causing a devastating loss of the marsupial mammals unique to Australia. Mixed with Winton’s indictment of the government’s callous policies is his criticism about homogenizing globalization. Not only do these forces alter the natural balance, they also strip communities of local knowledge and language. As people lose the names of natural objects and species, they also lose empathy for them.

The sad fact is that the citizen on the street in Sydney will have as little idea about what a dunnart is as his counterpart in London or Chicago. For the record it is a carnivorous mouse-sized marsupial with huge ears.

Another terrible cost of bad policies is the state of Australia’s aboriginal people, who have lost “250 plus” of their languages since colonization. What’s more, Australian aboriginal communities face hazards such as lowered life expectancy, chronic health issues, poverty, and illiteracy, according to Winton.

The one ray of hope Winton locates in this scenario is nonprofits and citizens reclaiming conservation and rehabilitation efforts. Winston recounts the success of his own conservation efforts in the essay “The Battle for Ningaloo Reef,” in which a coalition of citizens managed to fight off a pristine stretch of coral reef being converted into a marina. Winton’s experience as a “lifelong angler and sparfisher” gives him unique insight into the necessity of protecting the marine environment, and one of the most evocative themes in his essays is his “littoral” or close-to-shore sensibility, formed by his experiences surfing around whales and sharks. In “The Demon Shark,” Winton questions the vilification of sharks, which, contrary to their portrayals in Hollywood, are neither killing “machines” nor “invincible,” but one of the most over-fished marine species globally.

Winton locates his empathy for the landscape, wildlife, and marginalized groups in his own modest childhood and the influence of his parents, especially his father. Working with his hands has given Winton a frank attitude toward discussing class, which in “Using the C Word” he humorously describes as the great taboo of contemporary Australian society. Winton explores the paradox that as some sections of Australian society have grown more prosperous, mentioning class has become anathema. However, by the very act of acknowledging class differences, Australians of a generation ago were more aware, if not more sensitive, to these issues. Thus, the contemporary facade of class and race blindness has led to the cultural erasure of marginalized populations. Winton is especially sympathetic to the plight of the working poor, refugees, and single mothers.

Strikingly, apart from activism, Winton uses Christian humanism to advocate for refugees and marginalized communities. “Twice on a Sunday,” a previously unpublished piece, is especially significant because it describes Winton’s faith in action. Rather than try to explain why he is religious, Winton simply shows the origin and practice of his faith. Even though Australian society when he grew up was “militantly irreligious,” his parents started to practice Christianity in the wake of his “old man’s” brush with death. For Winton, his faith became a thoughtful way of containing the paradoxes of existence, as well as staying rooted in his personal charitable values.

Winton also explores the theme of faith in uncertainty in his essays on writing and the arts. In “Lighting Out,” he describes the intensely lonely process of writing a book. Winton uses the metaphor of passing a camel through a needle’s eye to describe how he reworked in fifty-five days a novel he had labored over for seven years. Close to his deadline, Winton is paralyzed by the feeling that his 1,200-page novel is “a turkey.” After months of writer’s block, he decides to begin reworking the book, hacking it down to 600 pages. Despite the success of the reworked draft, Winton is filled with a sense of having left something incomplete. The only certainty he has is the landscape he inhabits and his lived life, suggesting that writing, too, is a process of existing behind the curtain. In “Remembering Elizabeth Jolley,” Winton pays homage to his first writing teacher, one of Australia’s grand dames of literature. The essay is a sharp portrait of Jolley as a writing teacher, unsentimental in its clear-eyed tone of respect.

Fittingly, the memoir ends with hope, which is embodied by diversity in art. The final essay, “Barefoot in the Temple of Art,” describing a visit to National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, sums up Winton’s politics of humanism, cultural conservation, and liberal values. At the gallery, he is happy to see newer Asian artists hold their own among European masters, a sign of thriving multiculturalism. An exhibit by Indonesian artist Harold Purnomo, as well as the gallery’s democratic atmosphere and openness to parents and children, reassures him of Australia's future.

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