A Small Town in the Depression

Well Anyway
by Dal Stivens, introduction by Harry Heseltine
Arcadia, 2012, xxvi + 97 pages, $34.95

Dal Stivens (1912–97) was an extraordinarily versatile writer. His first published book, The Tramp and Other Stories, was a collection of short stories set in the depression years. Published in England by Macmillan in 1936, it received enthusiastic reviews from H.E. Bates and Edwin Muir. Stivens went on to develop the spare, laconic style of these realist stories as the medium for more playful themes, and over the years he produced a host of delightful and imaginative yarns, tall stories and fantasies, as well as a succession of novels. But his first completed novel, Well Anyway, written in the mid to late 1930s, remained unpublished until now.

It is an accomplished and powerful work, in no way to be categorised as juvenilia. Set in an Australian country town, it vividly captures the Depression years. Unemployment, poverty and homelessness are all part of the context and background, but there is no preaching or propagandising, no intrusive agenda.

There is no narrative voice. Instead Stivens adopted the technique used by William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying. Each character is presented through his or her own point of view, sometimes in observation, sometimes in reflection, sometimes in stream of consciousness. The novel progresses through these blocks of different voices, each prefaced with an identifying name—Tom, Clara, Jack, Jem, Alice.

Tom is a small-time professional boxer, now past his prime. Clara is the woman he lives with. Tom has a son, Jack, on the edge of adulthood, and Clara has a younger son, Jem. A new woman, Alice, comes to town, working as a barmaid. Both Tom and Jack have designs on her, while Jack is also lusting after Clara. The atmosphere is explosive. The narrative impetus derives from the sexual manoeuvrings, and from two boxing matches, one of which is presented, and one yet to come.

The tedium of small town life, the brooding sexual tension, the brutality of the world of boxing and the desperation and violence of male–female relationships are the themes, underpinned by the determining poverty and lack of opportunity of the depression years. It is a short novel—under a hundred pages in this edition. Stivens was a master of concision, and already in this first novel an expert in pacing narrative.

Harry Heseltine provides a valuable introduction, discussing the earlier variant drafts of the novel and situating the work in the circumstances of Stivens’s own life and experience of growing up in West Wyalong. He sketches in details of Stivens’s career, his early years as a journalist in Sydney, and his role in the establishment of the Australian Society of Authors. And he discusses Stivens’s problems in getting Well Anyway published.

Heseltine records that in 1945 “a certain A.D. Peters writing from London, told Stivens, ‘I am very glad to hear that Reed and Harris have agreed to publish Well Anyway’.” Reed and Harris, however, could not find a printer willing to undertake the book because, Heseltine concludes, “in some measure at least, its frankness of theme and language was offensive to Australia’s inter-war literary culture”. A.D. Peters, incidentally, was one of the foremost English literary agents of the twentieth century, and there is an entry on him in the new Oxford Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Michael Wilding’s latest novels are The Prisoner of Mount Warning, The Magic of It, and the forthcoming Asian Dawn.

Leave a Reply