The trouble with Tony Birch’s semi-autobiographical first book, Shadowboxing, a linked group of short stories set in the pre gentrified Fitzroy working class slums of the late 60s and early 70s is not that it isn’t good. It is a fine read, exemplary in its exploration of the themes of redemption, toxic masculinity, and class and culture resilience during hard times. It is also a fascinating snapshot of time and place, a Fitzroy and Collingwood that were just beginning to change dramatically. The problem is that Tony’s later work is even better because it doesn’t have that overlay of origin story and social history to get in the way of the stories and their themes.
I would really like to ask Tony [might even try] if after a decade of work when he entered University and started to realise his potential he thought that before he could look forward he needed to clear the decks and get this book out of the way as a tribute to his family, his upbringing, and his culture.
The earlier stories like The Butcher’s Wife and A Disposable Good where Michael is a boy and more the passive if keen observer are good tales of dirty deeds and family tragedies. They are intended to illustrate two particular consequences for women of the toxic masculinity so prevalent at the time and they do but without Michael or his family and friends front and centre they read a bit too much like local history with some extra colour.
Women play a central role in all the stories as sources of comfort, wisdom or resilience in a repressive man’s world. But interestingly over the time passage the book covers there is no story that fits between when the teenage Michael chooses his path and later as a father of two daughters himself he reconnects with his monster of a father. Presumably the story of how he met and his involvement with the mother of his daughters would also be compelling. Perhaps I am making the stories of Michael’s life more autobiographical than they actually are but given what Tony has said in interviews this gap intrigues me.
The book is at the best when the teenage Michael and his family are at the centre of the stories especially so in the case of the disturbing The Lesson, The Return, The Bulldozer, Ashes and the fantastic The Sea of Tranquillity. The later stories when the compassion and forgiveness of an adult Michael for his alcoholic, violent and failing father thereby showing that the sins of the father do not have to reoccur are different in tone but filled with quiet power.
Always Tony’s writing is simple and direct and dare I say punchy, no fancy stuff to describe tough times and he is a fine storyteller. Write about what you know they say and the first sentence of every story is designed to grab your attention and he doesn’t stuff around. Each story is quickly up and running and he moves through the gears like Michael’s mate Charlie in the stolen cars.
But his greatest skill is how he subtly explores just what it is to be a good man. He shows that choice and hope can overcome difficult circumstances and how just one or two positive examples can redirect a person to a better course through life. After all, it’s hard to be what you can’t see. Shadowboxing is a very good book (my favourite of the year so far) and if you enjoyed its themes and the quality of Tony’s prose or reading short stories like I do grab one of Tony’s later collections like Dark As Last Night or Common People.
Scott Hoffman (Collingwood Chapter)