STARDUST & GOLDEN
UWA Publishing, 2018, 208 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Two Adelaide University students from opposite ends of the social scale - Mark (solid proletarian stock) and Stephen (from the leafier postcodes) – discover something in common. There is a war in Vietnam to stop and a hide-and-seek game of conscription to navigate. They both register for the call-up ballot in full anti-war (T-shirt and leaflet) mode, outside the offices of the Department of Labour and National Service, trusting to luck that their number won’t come up or hoping to string out student deferral of the khaki crunch point.
Doug McEachern’s novel follows the progress and regress of the two friends as “endless acrimonious debates over militancy” pepper their student group house in inner-city North Adelaide. Mark, the most militant, although not a patch on the unruly Maoists and anarchists, makes a tactical error whilst leading an anti-war march through the city, taking the protesters too close to police, flicking the spring that unleashes the coiled fury of the state, primed for any pretext to exercise physical and judicial muscle.
Arrests, farcical trials, and convictions made and overturned, are followed by the two young men’s looming decisions about whether to go underground as draft resisters after receiving the fateful letter announcing their ‘success’ in the conscription lottery. Their choice of response will, it turns out, carry great human cost.
Four decades on, and Mark, a “fed-up” oil industry consultant, chucks in his job and revisits those days and their legacy of “unwanted memories” and “unfinished business”, not just to do with the war but also with an unwanted pregnancy, that afflicted the household.
At times, the characters’ relationships teeter on the Melrose Place edge (Mary - the Christian non-violent direct actionist - sums it up in “I love Angela and she doesn’t love me. She loves Stephen and Stephen doesn’t love her. Jane and Edward pretend to live together but they’re always falling apart”) but, like the 1990s cult American TV soap, it is oddly compelling. Unlike the shallow B-grade Hollywood dross, however, there are large matters of political and social import at stake in the personal travails.
McEachern (a sixties’ anti-war campaigner, then university academic and now novelist in south coast retirement in South Australia) writes what he knows about first-hand which gives his novel authenticity. There is also a bit of preliminary throat-clearing, scene-setting and character development that takes a while to move up through the gears before the story takes on an independent life of its own and motors towards a climax that avoids neat conclusion, is never quite predictable and carries some emotional power.
So, there are some ‘first novel nerves’, then, but the book turns out all right on the night. McEachern has the makings of a fine novelist and we should look forward to more to come from him.