ARTS

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July 12, 2002

Time and tragedy explored in Angel Rock

A few references to the Apollo 11 mission in Darren Williams's Angel Rock establish that the book is set in the winter of 1969-1970, or properly the summer of 1969-1970, since the book takes place in its author's native Australia. The moon landing has no significance for the events described here, and Williams references it only to tell us that one of the book's main characters, thirteen year-old Tom Ferry, has a fascination with space flight. The proper time is in fact no time: given the way the dead appear and reappear, and ancient grudges hold sway over events in the present, Williams relegates time to being a secondary, or worse, arbitrary consideration. Thus the moon landing and the prospect of Vietnam (Australia, like the United States, committed ground troops to the conflict) do not constitute the ambience of the novel. In a place like Angel Rock, the small outback town in which Williams sets his story, they are just unpleasant intrusions.

The real ambience is more specific to Angel Rock itself, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and—in the most unpleasant but salient feature of such a close-knit relationship—everything is remembered. Angel Rock wonders how people respond to tragedy in such a place, where it's impossible to simply forget and move on. Angel Rock is hit by two tragedies this particular summer. First, Tom Ferry and his brother Flynn disappear one Saturday night while walking on the outskirts of town. Tom finds his way to safety a few days later, dazed and weak but otherwise fine. Flynn, on the other hand, cannot be found, a loss that turns Tom's mother into a hysterical mess and sends his stepfather into booze-fueled cycles of violence and despair. Worse yet, townsfolk suggest that Tom must remember more than he lets on, and consequently must have something to hide. Just a few weeks after Flynn's disappearance, Darcy Steele, a teenage girl from Angel Rock, commits suicide in an abandoned house in Sydney. Most townspeople, like Pop Mather, the local policeman around whom much of the narrative centers, regard this as a very unfortunately timed coincidence.

But in the mind of Gibson—the detective in Syndey who discovers Darcy's body and investigates her death—there has to be some connection between the isolated suicide and the disappearance that has preoccupied the national press for weeks. He reasons that the events are linked by something rotten in the town of Angel Rock, and he leaves Sydney in an effort to find it. Gibson posits such a connection, of course, because as a fictional detective his life is naturally a mess of drink and depression, and he is haunted by a death in his own past remarkably similar to the one he is investigating. If Gibson's life and his obsession are clichés, however, they are at least clichés that Williams seems to recognize, and he dispenses with quickly: "The sergeant wheezed, coughed, then lit a cigarette. Gibson looked at him. Barely in your thirties and you've seen it all already, haven't you, he thought to himself. Seen too many bastards like me as well, I bet, old before their time." That's not to say that Gibson does not become grating after a while, merely that he's acknowledged as the literary stock character he is. His investigative technique feels similarly familiar, informed primarily by an unspoken connection between Gibson and the victim.

"Gibson stared. It was the same girl as in the first, but just a little older, her long hair slightly unkempt and fairer at the ends. She stood next to an eld erly man in a black suit. She wore a dress that looked like it might be faded blue and there were darker marks at the seams where it had been let out. Her eyes, though, hidden in the shade from her raised hand, could just be seen, staring out at the camera, staring out at him. Gibson blinked, looked away, looked back. She seemed like some bright-eyed sentinel on the border between two worlds, a knowing witness to the tricks of time; the here and now, the day—the world outside—and the past, the truth, whatever you wanted to call it, caught by the camera. "

Gibson, a man consumed by his own tragedy, searches among people similarly damaged—including Darcy's family and the bizarre missionary group with which they are connected. Pop Mather, Gibson's guide through Angel Rock, represents the alternative to Gibson's hollow compulsion; Pop's kindly persona belies his scarred psyche from his service in the Second World War:

"By the end of it I was the oldest bloke in my outfit. That's when they started calling me Pop and I started to really worry about them. They were only young—just boys like I'd been—but they thought they were men. I wanted all the boys to live, but I knew, like I knew I was going to live, that some would die. Knew it. "

Pop's doesn't worry about Gibson's mysterious connection, then, so much as he worries about helping Tom Ferry and his own daughter Grace—Darcy Steele's best friend—overcome their respective tragedies, just as he overcame his. Pop thus sits at the fulcrum of this hydra-headed story, which encompasses both Gibson's investigation and Tom's coming-of-age. While I may charitably say Pop is a plausible way of tying it together, he doesn't keep the narrative of Angel Rock from being a sprawling mess. Darren Williams—already the winner of numerous literary awards in Australia—has obvious talent, but this is a novel that smacks of indecision. Hovering somewhere between a story of childhood trauma and a police procedural, it cannot sustain its balance, ending in a rush of revelations that are barely foreseeable and thus unsatisfying. Angel Rock doesn't read like it's one or two drafts shy of being pretty good—it reads like a compendium of several different drafts of the same story. If Darren Williams were more sure which character this story belonged to—Gibson, Tom Ferry, or Pop Mather—it would have begun moving in the right direction. As is, the book is a promising failure.