Review: The Last Free Man and Other Stories12 February 2020
I must say there is a strangely melancholic tinge when reading a book so heavily steeped in Australiana as you fly out of Australia. For a book like The Last Free Man, this culminates in the desire to stare out the window at the vastness of the Australian wilderness and for a brief moment be alone (blessedly, when one’s seat is in front of a small screaming child) as Jimmy Healy does in the opening story of the same name.
The Last Free Man, by Lewis Woolston and published by Truth Serum Press features a series of vignettes with only one thing in common – their fascination with the wildness of the Australian outback. More accurately, the sense of stark contrast between city life and life in these remote spaces is the connecting thread of each of the stories, focusing on the feeling of existing outside the margins of society. From drug addicted roommates to lonesome truckers and cops, all of Woolston’s characters are almost permeated by the desolate nature of the places these stories occur in, stripping aside any facades and leaving a sense of rawness.
With that said, a story about raw Australiana wouldn’t be complete without a dash of good old Aussie sexism, which we see from the complete lack of depth to any of his female characters. Neither the first person narrator (who tends to have a similar voice throughout the stories it is present in, such as ‘The Last Free Man’ or ‘A Pistol and a French Girl’) nor the third person (who sits directly on the shoulders of the characters as in ‘Christmas in Alice Springs’) are forgiving or even remotely interested in these women as people. For the most part, the women are objects to be interacted with and the narration treats them with that level of apathetic contempt throughout. Along the same lines comes a complete lack of indigenous characters aside from the odd mention in at best a useful supporting role. Whilst I can acknowledge these are short stories and as such they don’t have a lot of time to really flesh out any of the characters in full and interesting ways, I found the female characters lacklustre and the use of indigenous characters as scenery disappointing.
I did find it strange the book was billed as a comedic title according to the reviews on the book itself, as I found very little of it funny. The stories have the compelling realism of Tim Winton and deal with tableaux of interesting and flawed individuals but they are not necessarily “funny” per se. If I were to hazard a guess at what was supposedly humorous, it would be the moments of caricature, such as the ‘screaming queen, Justin’ – a gay chef with a long-standing history of substance abuse problems from ‘Driftwood’. Even then, these caricatures felt at best like cheap gags. Perhaps it demonstrates the difference between the ‘suburban mind’ and the mind of the narrator that my first thought was living so alone and so isolated from other people in meaningful ways can only make you feel as desolate as this book perceived the landscape to be.