Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

Gothic Immersion
Robert Drewe's
The Shark Net: Memoirs and Murder

by Doug Childers

For readers looking for subtle complexities (both structural and psychological) as well as a healthy dose of Gothic explorations, The Shark Net is not to be missed.

Acclaimed Australian novelist Robert Drewe's first major nonfiction work, The Shark Net: Memoirs and Murder, is a fascinating hybrid: part autobiographical comedy, part Gothic memoir of maturation, and part true-crime narrative. The mix isn't evenly divided. The memoir elements dominate the narrative in terms of length; the comic touches tend to soften the harsher edges of Drewe's gloves-off take on his family. (Drewe's father was a fervent, even obsessive assistant state manager for the Dunlop Rubber Company, and his inflexibility and preoccupation with advancement naturally caused problems at home.) The true-crime material is perhaps the oddest element of the book, since the story of Eric Cooke, the Perth man who killed at least eight people and was himself the second-to-the-last person to be executed in Australia, is connected to Drewe's childhood only in fleeting appearances. Nonetheless, it's central to the Gothic themes that Drewe plays with so brilliantly throughout the book.

The Shark Net: Memoirs and Murder
Robert Drewe
289 pp.

Amazon.com order now logo

Like so many good Gothic stories, The Shark Net begins with Drewe's move (at the age of six) from the city to the country, from "ordered" Melbourne with its "frosty lawns and trimmed hedges" to Perth, a sand-swept town on the Western Australian coast, two thousand miles away. (Perth is often dubbed the most isolated city in the world.) Drewe knows right off--from the moment the view from the airplane window changes to a "gold and gray desert below"--that his world is about to change profoundly, and even before he reaches Perth, he begins to see a shift toward Gothic horrors:


When we left the plane at Kalgoorlie to stretch our legs there was a one-legged man balancing unsteadily in the red desert where the tarmac ended, trying to hit a little fox terrier with his crutch. Where the dog's fur was supposed to be white it was pink with desert dust. The man was three novel humans in one: the first real-life drunk, the first cruel person, and the first one-legged man I'd ever seen.


Perth itself, Drewe writes, is a place where standard rules are subverted (teachers insist that students come to class barefoot, for example), and danger seems to lurk in a variety of forms: undertow, snakes and--his mother's favorite fear--'boiling brain' brought on by the sun and heat. While 'boiling brain' doesn't appear to be a realistic concern, the sun and heat do their part to make Perth seem like the set of a horror film to the young Drewe, who calls his neighbors in the dunes Sand People:


Sun and sand had rearranged the appearance of the Sand People, too: tanned, freckled, scabbed, and bleached them. With their darker skins, red eyes, raw noses, and permanent deep cracks in their bottom lips, they looked nothing like Melbourne people. Some were as eroded as the cliffs, their noses and ears worn and peeled away, so that grown men had the snubbed features of boys. Around their edges--noses, ear tips, cheeks, shoulders--they were pink and fraying. Shreds of skin poked up from their general outline and fluttered in the sea breeze. Boys bled if they smiled too fast.

From a distance most of the adults seemed stained a smooth reddish-brown--my paintbox burnt sienna--but close up at the beach, walking behind them down the wooden ramp to the sand, you saw they were stippled like people in newspaper photographs, spotted with hundreds of jammed-together freckles and moles--brown and black on a pink background. There were women with chests and backs like leopards.


The leopard-backed women are nothing compared to the Walrus Man who rode the same bus as Drewe and "inevitably" sat next to him:


With a whistling snort, he'd plonk down beside me. Where his nose should have been was a gaping hole, like the nose cavity on a skull. He'd grown a walrus moustache to hide it, but to no avail; of course the moustache grew downward instead of upward, accentuating both his noselessness and his walrusness.

He made many long, noseless trips into town sitting beside me, and every time I felt sorry for him. But as he breathed his snorting whistle, and his fat thighs took over the seat, and his fingers worried away at the edges of his nosehole until his eyes watered, I inched so far away from him that I was barely sitting. I was teetering on one buttock and I was half out the bus window. I had a crick in the neck from twisting and leaning away and desperately trying to avoid a view of the inside of his head.


Once Drewe's family acclimates to Perth's rhythms, though, the neighborhood's suburban elements become more obvious. Indeed, for all the Gothic horrors Drewe finds awaiting him in Perth, the book's memoir sections often have the quality of an anthropological study of a quaintly remote era--of tradesmen who used the back door when selling household items or offering to sharpen the housewives' knives, for instance. This nostalgic sense of innocence is central to what Drewe is slowly building to on the sly: that in the middle of this innocence, profound disturbances were beginning to surface, and they took the form of Eric Cooke, a serial killer without a consistent pattern (he variously shot, stabbed and ran over his victims). Drewe does wonderful work with Cooke's character. A small man with a profound speech impediment caused by a hare lip, Cooke could have rung hollow in the wrong hands, but Drewe manages to make us first feel his shortcomings and his status as an outsider in a strong chapter (in which Cook swims across a river in a fruitless effort to gain respect) before he shifts the focus from Cooke as a social victim to Cooke as a neighborhood Peeping Tom and, ultimately, a vengeful murderer.

Cooke's presence in Drewe's memoir certainly isn't gratuitous: he killed one of Drewe's friends and was a Dunlop employee who sometimes made deliveries to the Drewe house. Indeed, one marvels at first that Drewe doesn't give Cooke more space in his text. But Drewe is up to something far more subtle with the Cooke material. The true-crime sections certainly aren't extended enough to call the book a true-crime narrative, but they are strong enough to give the text a dangerous, Gothic aura. And--perhaps most importantly--it helps form a bridge to one of The Shark Net's most intriguing elements: Drewe's own sense of being drawn into the Gothic underworld as an adolescent.

When he was a child, Drewe's parents had to protect him from Perth's natural dangers. When he becomes a teenager, the roles reverse, and he finds he has to protect his parents from his knowledge of a new set of dangers and excitements, most of them dealing with that most Gothic device, the adolescent discovery of sex. He is shocked speechless, for instance, when he and his mother step into a milk bar and discover a "clumsy lout" is sauntering around the room "repeating in a falsetto voice, 'Rape! Rape!'" And, when his thoughts turn to Rottnest Island ("where West Australians lost their virginity") and the local dances where Drewe could dance close "up against the bolstered breasts and panty-girdled pelvis of a fifteen-year-old normally spotted at the bus stop in a tartan uniform," the sexual world he tries to keep from his parents becomes his own, guilt-ridden secret preoccupation. Attending a Billy Graham crusade with his mother, Drewe writes that Graham seemed to seek him out in the crowd and let his eyes bore "right into my evil teenage soul." (Drewe does eventually make it to Rottnest, but--in one of the book's funniest scenes--his first kiss goes horribly awry when his date actually vomits on him, mid-kiss.)

Pointedly, Drewe is thirteen and on the cusp of adolescence and "cultivating a rebellious teenage image" when he first meets Cooke, whose own sexual explorations have already begun to turn horribly criminal. Drewe's slipping so subtly from memories of a quaint boyhood to a story of transgressions that ultimately consume him at the same time murder victims begin appearing is a cunning piece of narrative work. On a psychological level, Cooke is the perpetually rejected, misunderstood adolescent, wanting acceptance (both sexual and social) and finding himself drawn into his own secret world of transgressions when his gestures are repulsed. (This interpretation ignores the possibility that Cooke was simply insane-after all, his sexual urges were truly deviant, while Drewe's were simply guilt-ridden but healthy discoveries--and that Cooke in fact had a wife and several children, which Drewe doesn't explore at length until the book's end.)

The subtle linkage between Drewe and Cooke culminates, some years later, in Drewe's covering Cooke's murder trial as an apprentice reporter. Sitting in the courtroom, Drewe writes, he suddenly felt Cooke staring at him.


I'd been avoiding his eyes, hoping he wouldn't recognize me, but a moment later he winked. I winked back, then I felt a hot wave of embarrassment that quickly turned into anger at myself. I hoped that no one, not the magistrate or the other reporters, and especially not the victim's family, had seen me.

I told myself I should have ignored his wink and looked away. But in the split second when I'd weighed up my response, I decided he was in such deep shit that it would be uncharitable and somehow treacherous not to wink back.


That word 'treacherous' is a wonderful example of Drewe's subtlety: psychologically, Drewe the reporter now stands on the side of normalcy, of suburban values, and Cooke represents the Gothic world (i.e., sexually deviant--though in suburban terms, the phrase may be redundant) that Drewe (now happily married) has 'relinquished.' (After all, marriage has sanctified his own sexual urges.) Drewe's ability to suggest these connections only indirectly is an amazing accomplishment, and the fact that this court scene appears in the book's first chapter (rather than at the end of a chronologically arranged account) is a testament to Drewe's skills at developing sinuous narrative structures.

For readers looking for subtle complexities (both structural and psychological) as well as a healthy dose of Gothic explorations, The Shark Net is not to be missed.




Amazon.com: Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.