Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 160 pages; 2001.
Mudrooroo was the pen name of Colin Thomas Johnson (1938-2019), a novelist, poet, essayist and playwright. He was once described as “the voice of Indigenous Australia” because his writing mainly focused on Aboriginal issues and featured Australian Aboriginal characters.
Wild Cat Falling, first published in 1965, was his debut novel. According to the publisher, it was held up as “the first novel by any writer of Aboriginal blood to be published in Australia”.
He traced his ancestry to the Noongar^ nation of Western Australia, but in 1996 Noongar elders rejected his claim.
Despite this controversy over his Aboriginality (of which you can read more on his Wikipedia page), I still wanted to read this novel as part of my project to read more books by First Nations Writers. From what I can gather, he was brought up as Aboriginal, thought of himself as Black and writes from personal experience.
What made this book unique at the time was the fact that it highlights how the Australian judicial system, and the wider community, was prejudiced against Aboriginal Australians, a systematic problem that still exists more than half a century later.
But all that aside, Wild Cat Falling plays an important role in the Australian literary canon because it’s a brilliant book in its own right. It’s stylish, compelling and memorable. And I ate it up in about two sittings.
Release from jail
A gripping first-person account of a young Aboriginal man’s life, Wild Cat Falling is narrated by a nameless youth who describes himself as a “bodgie” ^^. He is about to be released from Fremantle Prison where he’s been incarcerated for the past 18 months for petty criminality.
Today the end and the gates will swing to eject me, alone and so-called free. Another debt paid to society and I never owed it a thing.
His voice, intimate and forthright, is tinged with anger, the arrogance of youth and a melancholy sense of futility, that this is his lot in life and there’s no use hoping for anything better. Jail has been a refuge for him, a place where he’s been safe and accepted by others, had a decent roof over his head and three meals a day.
The story, which is split into three parts, charts what happens to him after he walks free, as he tries to adjust to life back in society as a “half-breed delinquent”.
It’s a tale of an emotionally detached man — “I trained myself this way so no phoney emotion can touch me” — who is desperate, perhaps unconsciously, to connect with others and to defy expectation.
But on his first day of freedom , there’s really only one thing on his mind, and that is sex.
An encounter on the beach
When he meets an attractive young woman, a psychology student, on the beach, he strikes up a conversation with her, explaining how his education, first at an ordinary school, then a boy’s home, followed by the Noongar camps and latterly jail, has been unconventional. And he makes no bones about the fact he has no real plans now he’s free beyond getting drunk and sleeping with women until his prison pay runs out because he’ll be put in jail soon enough even if he doesn’t do anything wrong.
The woman, June, is perplexed.
“You haven’t got a clue,” I tell her. “They make the law so chaps like me can’t help breaking it whatever we do, and the likes of you can hardly break it if you try.”
“How do you mean?” she asks.
“For one thing. We make the only friends we have in jail, but if we’re seen talking outside we’re arrested for consorting with crims.”
When she later accuses him of being lazy, of bludging on the taxpayer, he feels the “old bitter taste of resentment in my mouth”.
Nothing ever up to them. Only up to us, the outcast relics in the outskirt camps. The lazy, ungrateful rubbish people, who refuse to cooperate or integrate or even play it up for the tourist trade. Flyblown descendants of the dispossessed erupting their hopelessness in petty crime. I glare at her with concentrated hate. I want to wither her glib white arrogance with biting scorn, but I can’t find the words.
A friendly invite
Perhaps because she’s interested enough to get to know him a bit better, June throws down the gauntlet and suggests he meet her and her friends at the coffee lounge at her university the next evening, which he does. The encounter is enlightening — for it’s clear he’s there as a kind of social experiment, giving a group of white students a chance to speak to an Aboriginal for the first time. He plays up to it a bit, but his inner resentment is writ large on the page.
Maybe she thinks if she keeps it up [her racism masquerading as white empathy] I will leap out and do a corroboree in the middle of the floor.
Sick of the group’s condescension, he has a bit of fun with them by offering his bulldust opinion about a painting hanging on the wall — “a revolting mess of hectic semi-circles and triangles” — that seems to impress them. He holds his own talking about art and jazz, winning further admiration and a rare invite to an evening house party.
The narrative continues to unfurl in this kind of spontaneous manner as he goes about his business, sleeps with a couple of women, is reacquainted with his mother, hangs out with the university mob and reconnects with his former bodgie mob. But there’s trouble brewing because he’s finding it hard to suppress the memories from his troubled past that keep coming back to haunt him.
When he decides to steal a car and go on a road trip, a new, dangerous edginess creeps into the storyline — and any chance of redemption seems remote.
Wild Cat Falling is a powerful tale, of a Black man on the margins, someone who is indifferent to the two worlds in which he must navigate, a lost soul who doesn’t understand himself much less the culture and country that’s been denied him.
It has a dramatic climax, one that involves a policeman and a pair of handcuffs, which suggests the story is going to end exactly where it began — in prison.
Bill at The Australian Legend has also reviewed this book.
^ Also spelt Noongah, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah and Yunga.
^^ An informal Australian term for a teenage subculture from the 1950s, depicted as loutish and rebellious. See this Wikipedia entry for more detail.
I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here.
Please note, Wild Cat Falling is only available in Australia. International readers can order it from independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.