And What Do You Do, Mr Gable? by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan_Richard Graham Greene stood by one principle in deciding which essays to reprint for a collection: to include nothing he would have written differently today. Surely this is a hard pill to swallow for those novelists keen to repackage their journalistic exertions and criticism into one slick volume. But perhaps the key to these 25 short pieces is that they are precisely that – a collection of hard-worn scraps, gathered like woodchips to be thrown back at us, without preface or excuse. Half of them have appeared in The Age and elsewhere over the past 15 years, but there is no discerning pattern or theme to their selection. However there is a sense that each somehow leads into the next with a small tonal flourish.

From Port Arthur to landscape photography, war and Eastern Europe, bread recipes, Kosovar refugees, the farce of Mark Latham, the 2004 campaign trail, the awe of Bob Brown, and the Gunns pulp mill, Flanagan keeps his cool with storyteller tact, awash with anecdotes, reminding us that art and novels remain central to humanity. It’s unsurprising then that on the subject of writing Flanagan shines best.

An unpublished afterword to his novel Wanting, a confessional distaste with film, an introduction to Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, and some brilliant commentary on Borges, Grossman and Faulkner is salivating. In fact it’s in Faulkner’s titular jibe to Clark Gable that the collection makes sense. For as Flanagan later pronounces: ‘You discover some of the truth of a man in the insults he chooses to hurl.’ It’s clear that under the guise of subtlety and manners, a deep fury ripples beneath much of his writing, largely aimed at the politics of difference. Would he write these pieces again? You bet.

Luke May is from Readings St Kilda