Look Back with Apprehension

Michael Wilding, The Prisoner of Mount Warning (Press On, 2010), $24.95

One reason I like Michael Wilding’s work so much, and this may be the same reason it is sometimes misunderstood, is that the acute social observation of his writing is sometimes taken as unmediated description. And so the creative imagination of the author is dismissed as if he were a mere cipher for recording the word around him.

Not so. Wilding is a sly writer, who lures you in with a knowing laugh only to turn the joke around and leave you gasping. There were many such moments in Academia Nuts and Superfluous Men, his novels about ageing academics as they reach the end of their careers and face anonymous retirement.

Wilding’s latest novel, The Prisoner of Mount Warning, returns to the heady pot-smoking paranoid seventies by focusing on a group of one-time hippies whose past exploits are catching up with them to embarrass them. If you were young in the seventies, you might know what this means.

A writer turned investigative reporter, Wilding’s protagonist Plant is the most innocent of all the players, despite the implications of his name, in what is gradually revealed to be a widespread spook network. Huxter, the arts editor of a major newspaper, employs Plant to track down a man called Dorritt, who has written a disturbing article about being kidnapped, tortured and subjected to sex slavery while in the employ of the secret service many years before. 

Dorritt had been enlisted by his professor to conduct a survey of alternative magazines and newspapers after funding for Dorritt’s PhD program was terminated. Dorritt had a nervous breakdown during the course of his research and was put away for years, emerging only after a “Writing as Therapy” course prompted him to record his earlier traumatic experiences. It is this that has got Huxter so worried.

Trouble for Plant is, Huxter doesn’t want to say too much about the case because, as Plant correctly opines, he’s personally involved:

“Find out what he’s [Dorritt] planning to write.”

“What sort of things?”

“How would I know what sort of things?” said Huxter.

Very clearly, Plant thought, but he kept quiet. Huxter was worried about something and wasn’t going to say what it was. Something that Dorritt might write. But if Dorritt in the end didn’t write it, then Huxter didn’t want to have said what it was. That was clear. It was also clear that it was something serious. Something worrying. Something incriminating. Otherwise there would be no reason for Huxter not to tell Plant.

In his search for information about Dorritt, Plant visits Bobbie, the American proprietor of Bobbie’s Books who, with “blonded hair, gold necklace, earrings, bangles, beige business suit”, was clearly inspired by Pat Woolley of Fastbooks.

Bobbie tells Plant of her reaction when Dorritt visited her years before to interview her for his research project on the alternative press:

“I thought he was a poet,” said Bobbie. “One of those English ones. All dandruff and unwashed socks.”

“I’d like to talk to you,” he said.

“Talk,” said Bobbie, counting out another twenty-five copies of How to Grow Your Own Dope and Harvest It.

“Well, interview you,” said Dorritt.

“Go ahead,” said Bobbie.

He took out his notebook.

“What is the aim of your publishing program?”

“To sell books,” said Bobbie.

He laughed. A madman’s laugh …

“Apart from that?”

“Apart from that we’re going to be out of business.”

He snuffled some more.

“But your editorial objectives?”

“Not to publish poetry,” she said. Hoping that would get rid of him. But it didn’t. He just wrote it down.

Plant’s mission to find the elusive Dorritt takes him to inner-city pubs, the Greek restaurant above Hyde Park, the writers’ centre in Rozelle where Dorritt is a volunteer. Plant is a keen observer of his environment, as an investigative reporter should be, and brings Sydney to life with piquant details of his travels across it:

They drove across to Ashfield, parked the car and walked past the church hall and the food being doled out to the down and outs, past the Polish house, last relic of the post-war Slavic migration, down into the new Chinatown, in the Shanghai Night. In the early afternoon. Hand made noodles. Shallot cake. Vegetable dumplings. Chili pepper tofu.

Plant follows his quarry to the hills behind Byron Bay, the scene of the crimes Dorritt alleges took place—kidnapping, torture, sexual slavery and interrogation. He visits the commune and finds that Rose, one of the original inhabitants, still lives there. There’s the bowl of fruit on the wooden table. The bowl of dope. Familiar? The heady smoke of pot rises from the pages when Plant sits around the hippy table, questioning Rose and Huxter’s colleagues Angela Dark, a journalist, and Ghostly Sperrit, political speechwriter and bagman, about their involvement in Dorritt’s kidnapping and torture, since they were at the commune at the time the alleged events took place.

Plant becomes increasingly paranoid when his friend Fullalove suggests that Plant may have been employed to find Dorritt so that “the contract man knows where to go”. Enmeshed in a spy ring in which everyone lies or is evasive, maybe even his friend Fullalove, his paranoia provides the links for transforming a complex set of hints and suppositions into the ultimate paranoiac interpretation of the case and make it seem plausible, at least until the end of the story. It is a story which will confront you with its logic and suck you in with its reasoning.

Plant’s sensitivity to the nuances of communication leads to many hilarious moments in this very funny novel, while Wilding’s wonderful ear for menacing dialogue and a witty punch line make The Prisoner of Mount Warning a must for anyone who would enjoy a spy thriller loaded with black humour while taking a nostalgic trip back to the radical seventies. 

Irina Dunn, a former independent senator for New South Wales, is the author of The Writer’s Guide: A Companion to Writing for Pleasure or Publication.

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