Australia’s late Kenneth Cook is one of the world’s great neglected
writers. His 21 novels are little known outside Australia, and pretty
scarce even in their native land. It seems that if Cook is remembered at
all these days it’s for his 1961 debut novel WAKE IN FRIGHT
(which was made into a well known
That situation is not entirely
inappropriate, as WAKE IN FRIGHT remains Cook’s masterpiece. It’s a
blistering depiction of grit and desperation that announced Kenneth Cook
as Australia’s answer to American scribes like Hubert Selby Jr. and
Charles Bukowski. It also set the tone for most of Cook’s succeeding
novels, in which (to quote a back cover blurb from one of them) “human
beings are forced to confront the truth about the wild side of
Australia--and the reality of their own natures.”
The central character is a refined schoolteacher who in
order to obtain his credential finds himself teaching in a desolate town
in the Australian outback. Kenneth Cook’s depiction of the outback is
far from the opulent wonderland depicted in movies like WALKABOUT and
CROCODILE DUNDEE, being a desolate wasteland packed with Cro-Magnon
toughs who shoot kangaroos for fun, and who the protagonist falls in
with while on his Christmas vacation. In this company our “hero” finds
his own darker instincts bubbling to the fore, and his life spiraling
out of control.
WAKE IN FRIGHT remains one of the absolute best
descent-into-savagery stories I’ve ever encountered, presenting a fully
rounded character caught up in a horrifically convincing spiral that
challenges all our notions of “civilized” behavior. Add to that some
truly gut-wrenching brutality (the kangaroo killings are described in
extremely intimate detail) and you’ve got a novel that’s over 50
years old yet reads like it was written yesterday.
Kenneth Cook followed this triumph with
1962’s CHAIN OF DARKNESS, another superbly grungy look at the
Australian outback distinguished by economic prose and three dimensional
characters. In contrast to the naturalistic drama of the former novel,
this one is a taught chase thriller that transposes the exploits of
Johnson, a petty criminal who becomes the subject of a manhunt after
accidentally killing a cop, with those of Davidson, an overzealous TV
reporter covering the story.
The point, of course, is to show that these two men are
both equally corrupt and dishonest in their respective practices. I’m
sure this was a novel premise back in 1962, but these days it’s a bit
old-hat. The novel, however, is still a powerfully brutal and
tension-filled read, with Johnson committing another murder and Davidson
finding himself with an unexpected interview opportunity when his
subject confronts him and his crew at gunpoint. There’s also some vivid
nastiness (as when Johnson, pursued through farmland and growing
increasingly ravenous, kills a possum and eats its innards raw) and a
disturbingly convincing sense of near-documentary realism.
1963’s STORMALONG was Cook’s
third novel, and a letdown. It is once again a quintessentially
Australian portrayal of violence and desperation, headlined by Paul, a
devoutly Catholic boatshed owner. Cook himself operated a boatshed in
his early years, and the experience is evident in this account, which is
nothing if not convincingly detailed.
Unfortunately it’s also drawn-out and meandering, with
a lot of excess wordage devoted to Paul’s attempts at wooing a married
woman named Rebecca. Being Catholic, Paul has to get Rebecca’s marriage
annulled in order to properly wed her, which turns out to be an
extremely dull process (for him and the reader). Another impediment to
Paul’s happiness is the intervention of a slimy opium smuggler named
Harry Maine. Paul and his business partner Alan have an unpleasant
confrontation with Maine, who retaliates by cutting all the boatshed’s
boats loose from their moorings and eventually killing Alan.
The murder doesn’t take place until STORMALONG’S final
third, but I’m not spoiling anything by revealing it. Alan’s death,
after all, is referenced numerous times before it actually occurs; it’s
almost as if Cook realized his narrative was plodding and so inserted
the presentiments of Alan’s demise to liven it up.
The novel concludes with a supremely guilty Paul, who
can’t help but blame himself for Alan’s death, hitting the revenge trail
in a too little-too late denouement.
1967’s TUNA explores Australia’s
fishing scene. It’s the relentless account of Jack Foster, a determined
fisherman who purchases a fishing boat from some Italian tourists.
Foster doesn’t have enough money to fully cover the price of the boat
and so depletes his life savings in the hope that he’ll catch enough
tuna to recoup his debts. As you might guess--this is, after all, a
Kenneth Cook novel--catching Tuna is easier said than done. Eventually
Foster manages to nab a boat-load of the stuff, but this entails a whole
new set of problems, such as the fact that Foster’s boat isn’t equipped
to carry such a high volume of fish.
TUNA is prime Kenneth Cook, with vivid and colorful
settings, an all-too-convincing depiction of the ugly side of the
Australian fishing industry and a plethora of fully realized
bottom-dwelling characters. It’s also an extremely suspenseful and
absorbing account, even though it’s clear from the start that things are
going to turn out badly for the beleaguered Jack Foster. Thus the
narrative has the crude fascination of a foretold catastrophe: you read
on, all the while dreading the inevitable tragic outcome--and, you can
rest assured, it IS tragic!
Following stints as a politician (Cook was
the co-founder of Australia’s Liberal Reform Group) and
producer/screenwriter for film and television, Kenneth Cook turned out
what I believe was his finest work since WAKE IN FRIGHT: 1974’s
With this account of a wild night at a sleazy hotel located on the
outskirts of Sydney, Cook tried something new, imbuing his usual brand
of gritty drama with a strain of pitch-black comedy that was quite
unprecedented back in 1974.
What occurs in the hotel over the course of the evening
in question is interspaced with a succeeding court inquest, in which
it’s established that amid “a scene of squalor, terror and confusion”
someone was murdered. This knowledge hangs over the remainder of the
book, which builds to a near-unbearable pitch of suspense as the hotel’s
lowlife inhabitants grow increasingly rowdy, with brutality,
prostitution, rape, underage drinking, a fatal car accident and a lost
cat all contributing to the murder in question. The characters, all of
whom end up thoroughly dehumanized, include two sleazy slaughterhouse
workers, an effeminate young man looking to get laid, a naďve young
woman who falls prey to all three, and the hotel’s piggish owner. Amidst
all the madness Cook manages to insert his trademarked naturalistic
observations with admirable unobtrusiveness, as well as a final twist
you simply will not be able to predict, regardless of how hard
Onto 1977’s THE MAN UNDERGROUND. Once
again we have a desperate man living in a sun-baked Australian Hellhole,
in this case a godforsaken mining town called Ginger Whisker. The
residents of Ginger Whisker reside in holes in the ground, spending
their days mining for opal and their nights at the local bar. The
protagonist Simon Crown, who relates the tale from a supremely jaded
first person perspective, is a divorced sad sack who owns a mine and
runs a radio station. Everything in Simon’s life is sordid and hopeless,
at least until a comely woman moves into his hole and a rich businessman
enters his life. Both would seem to offer a glimmer of hope, but Simon,
being the cynical sort that he is, doesn’t think so--and indeed he’s
right. The proceedings go from worse to worst when Simon’s mining
partner discovers (or thinks he does) a super vein of opal in his mine,
which of course only leads to more trouble.
The narrative is a reasonably compelling one, even if
Simon’s perpetually booze-addled perspective is a bit off-putting (it’s
not unlike the ramblings of a barroom drunk spread out over an entire
book). The setting is definitely a novel and intriguing one, enhanced by
Cook’s unsurpassed descriptive skills. There are also some head-snapping
twists, particularly toward the end, wherein we’re subjected to a
genuinely shocking blast of outright depravity.
PLAY LITTLE VICTIMS (1978) is
perhaps Cook’s most atypical novel, an ANIMAL FARM-like metaphoric fable
with more than a hint of the satiric nastiness of Jonathan Swift’s “A
Modest Proposal.” Missing is the documentary realism of Cook’s earlier
novels, as well as the Australian settings, with the action situated in
Profusely illustrated with Edward Gorey-esque drawings
by the author’s daughter Megan Gressor, PLAY LITTLE VICTIMS is told in
the all-knowing God’s-eye tone that tends to characterize fables, and
indeed opens with God himself as the focus. It seems the big guy has
grown tried of dealing with Earthly problems and so, in the year
2000(!), decides to put an end to all life on Earth. But He
inadvertently leaves a couple of mice named Adamus and Evemus alive in
the middle of the United States. Having been touched by the hand of God,
Adamus and Evemus find themselves gifted (if that’s the word) with human
levels of intelligence, and set about repopulating the deserted town
where they find themselves situated.
At first everything runs smoothly, but Adamus and
Evemus’ offspring reproduce at an alarming rate. Adamus and Evemus,
together with an assistant named Logimus and a carefully selected
governing board, attempt to control the population by consulting the
literature left behind by mankind (specifically the Bible and the New
York Times). They utilize war, automobiles, tobacco, alcohol and
abortions, and even leak plutonium into the town’s water supply.
Eventually, nearing the end of his life and facing the prospect of
permanent overpopulation, Adamus hits upon a singularly macabre Final
Solution that’s without precedent in the human kingdom. The tale ends,
appropriately, with the following two sentences: “Logimus screamed. And
The 1980s were difficult years for
Kenneth Cook, with a divorce, bankruptcy and two highly ambitious but
disappointing novels. 1980’s
PIG was the first of those novels.
It’s essentially a more realistic variant on the Aussie horror flick
RAZORBACK (1984), pivoting on a giant pig loose in the outback. Mutant
creatures were never Cook’s forte, but in PIG he acquits himself
reasonably well by putting his descriptive talents to good use. His
characterizations are also strong, with the protagonist, a
conservationist named Allen Treval, being a well-modulated bundle of
contradictions. Allen claims to care deeply about Australia’s wildlife
yet callously kills quite a few animals over the course of the novel.
Allen is initially looking to capture the titular mutant pig and bring
it back to Sydney for study, but he eventually grows determined to
simply kill the thing. This entails a trek into the rodent infested
swampland where the creature resides, with Allen’s son Michael and the
attractive pilot Anne along for the ride.
In relating this bleak tale Cook makes at least one big
mistake. This is to say he constantly tries to justify the pig’s
Godzilla-like powers (I lost track of how many arguments the
protagonists have about whether the creature is “just” a pig) without
ever bothering to explain them. A good pulp novelist would have provided
a radioactive contamination or scientific mutation rationale, but
Kenneth Cook was an A-list author working on grade-B material. There’s
nothing wrong with that, of course, but I feel that when writing such
fare one should embrace its inherent trashiness rather than pretend to
be above it.
1983’s THE FILM-MAKERS was
another disappointment. Here Cook, together with his daughter Kerry,
explored the Australian filmmaking scene. Cook definitely knew the world
he was writing about, having been a prolific screenwriter and
documentary filmmaker--as for that matter did Kerry Cook, herself a
movie and TV veteran.
Unfortunately the authors’ first-hand knowledge is laid
on a little too thickly, resulting in quite a few overlong and dull
passages about the complex planning, networking and financial
arrangements that figure into the making of an Australian feature film.
That feature is an action thriller conceived by two obsessed filmmakers
who gamble everything they have on its success.
Things don’t pick up until around 150 pages in, when
one of the protagonists is involved in a plane crash in the desert. The
resulting passages, in which the man attempts to survive in this
parched, craggy landscape, are some of the most harrowing Cook has
written. A subsequent episode involving a stunt that goes horrifically
wrong and inadvertently turns the production into a snuff film is
equally potent, but such things are the exception in this novel, which
includes numerous subplots that are never satisfyingly resolved and a
lengthy digression about the famous “dingo killed my baby” early-1980s
murder case. The novel, in short, is bloated and unfocused in a very
un-Kenneth Cook manner, and among his least successful efforts.
Kenneth Cook finished out his writing career
with the “Killer Koala” trilogy consisting of KILLER KOALA
(1986), WOMBAT REVENGE and FRILL-NECKED FRENZY (both
1987), all containing uncharacteristically lighthearted stories about
the fauna of the Australian outback. The “amusing obverse” of WAKE IN
FRIGHT, the Killer Koala books were bestsellers in their native land,
and appeared to herald a new direction for this iconoclastic talent.
Sadly, however, Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack in 1987.
That Cook left behind a varied and
impressive body of work is without question. In addition to the above,
Cook’s literary output included a recounting of a family vacation
(1963’s BLOOD RED ROSES), a movie novelization (1976’s ELIZA
FRASER), a musical drama (1975’s STOCKADE) and two
pseudonymously published thrillers (VANTAGE TO THE GALE and
WANTED DEAD, both 1963, by “Alan Hale”). What all these books have
in common is that none are particularly easy to find. I’m tempted to say
that Kenneth Cook’s work will live on, but it seems that, tragically,
that may not be the case.
Let’s hope I’m wrong.