1988: A Novel

1988: A Novel

by Andrew McGahan


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An urgent generational novel by a talented Australian writer. When two frustrated artists take jobs at a remote weather station in Australia's Northern Territory—in hopes of finding solitude and inspiration—their journey affords an unflinching, original, and at times, hilarious look at what it means to grow up in the world today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312180324
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/15/1998
Edition description: REV
Pages: 314
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Andrew McGahan is the author of Praise, which won the prestigous Vogel Award and became a cult bestseller down under. McGahan lives in his native Queensland, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

There was an argument in Chinese outside my door. It happened often and in many ways I was beginning to hate the language. I rolled over and considered the digital clock. Nearly midday. Time, maybe, to get out of bed. I lay and listened for a while, looking down at my white round belly. It was hot in the room, a stale air of sweat and old sheets. The morning asthma weighed in. I groped around for the Ventolin, found it, sucked in the drug. Outside the voices rose, fell, moved along the hall, came back again. Maybe it wasn't an argument. Maybe it was just a loud discussion.

I got up and shuffled around. Five foot, eleven and half inches of me, running to fat. I wrapped a towel around my waist, opened the door. Five of the Chinese were in the hall. I knew some of their names, but only some. They stopped talking and looked at me.

'Morning boys,' I said.

'Good morning,' some of them answered. There were nods and smiles from the ones who spoke no English.

'Any luck today?' I asked.

Shakes of the head, negatives. One of them laughed. He said 'You always get up very late.'

I nodded, began edging my way through.

Another laugh. 'You like sleep. Sleep very late.'

'You got that right.'

I moved towards the shower.

It was a four bedroom house, in James Street, New Farm. Brisbane. I'd lived there about six months. I'd chosen it because I needed a cheap room and I vaguely knew the owner. His name was William. He dealt marijuana and worked part-time installing dishwashing machines. When I first moved in the other two rooms were occupied by female university students. I never knew them well.Shortly after I moved in, they moved out. As far as I could gather it was nothing personal. Still, we were left with two rooms to fill. Which was where it all began.

William placed an ad with the local alternative radio station. 'Relaxed smokers of either sex wanted. No bond.' We waited. Over the following weeks there were only a few calls and none of them, upon seeing the rooms, were interested. It wasn't much of a house. The walls and windows were dirty, and the floor had fallen through in several places. William's plan was to renovate one day and sell at a profit.

In the meantime the lack of rent was a problem. William needed it to pay the mortgage. And I was in no position to pay extra, I was only a casual worker myself. More time passed. William gave up on selective advertising and went to the mainstream newspaper. 'Two rooms available. No bond.' Again, for some time there was no interest. Then two Chinese males arrived at the door.

Their names were Li Ping and Michael Wan. Each was carrying a suitcase. They'd just arrived, they said, from Shanghai. They were in Australia to study English and Engineering. The English they already had wasn't much good, but it was understandable. William showed them the rooms. They were the smaller two of the house. Unfurnished. They were also slightly cheaper than mine. Forty-five a week, compared to fifty. Li and Michael said that was fine and could they move in straight away. William said yes. He pocketed the first two weeks' rent in advance and smiled at them.

'You wanna go and get all your stuff?' he asked.

Li and Michael held up the suitcases. 'This is it.'

There were a couple of old mattresses under the house, and a derelict wardrobe. It was enough to get them started.

I showered for a long while. It was a fine shower, the spout set high above a large, rusty claw-footed tub, the water strong. One of the few good points of the house. I was grateful for that. Mornings were a bad time and a good shower helped. No matter whether I'd been drinking the night before or not, I always awoke feeling hungover and ill. There were many explanations for it. My asthma was severe, and some of the drugs I took for it caused nausea, especially on a morning's empty stomach. Others caused throat infections and foul breath. I also suffered chronic hayfever and took vast amounts of antihistamines. They knocked out the hayfever, but took me along as well, made the night's sleep dead and deadening.

After the shower I threaded my way back through the Chinese to my room and dressed. Then it was to the kitchen. The kitchen floor was one of the bad spots in the house. A whole corner of it had fallen through and needed to be avoided. Otherwise the room was small and hot and dirty—an overflowing compost bin in the corner, milk cartons and beer bottles and unwashed dishes on the benches, stiffened tea bags and rancid butter on the cutting-board. A small black-and-white television sat on the windowsill. It was the only TV in the house and for some reason William refused to put it in the living room. He liked to watch TV in the kitchen, propped up in a chair amidst the mess, sweating and drawing in periodic belts of his home-grown heads. There was nothing I could do. It was his house and his TV.

I dug around and found bread, put two slices in the toaster. There was a pot of fishhead soup on the stove. I stared into it while I waited. The Chinese made the soup regularly, it was easy and the ingredients were cheap. I'd tasted it a few times and liked it well enough, but now it was cold and congealed. I thought about dead fish. When the toast was ready I buttered it, Vegemited it, and sat down. I stared out the window. It was a bright sweltering day, nothing to see but the glare from the neighbours' tin roofs and from the sky. Summer in Brisbane. I contemplated options.

It was a day off, that was one thing. Exactly what date I didn't know. Early February. The ninth or the tenth or the eleventh. It didn't matter. I worked four days a week at a pub across the river. Fridays and Saturdays and two other days more or less at random. Shifts between four and eight hours. I disliked the work, so a free afternoon was something. At least it would've been, had I anything else to do. I had nothing else to do. I sat there, thinking about time. It was 1988. Australia's Bicentennial year. The country was two hundred years old. I was twenty-one.

They were, I knew, significant numbers. Something should have happened in my life by then. But I'd already made my big move, and it hadn't worked. It was two years earlier, when I was nineteen. I was at uni then, studying literature. I dropped out. I was to write a novel. A horror novel. It was supposed to be a best-seller. A money-maker. Somehow it all went wrong. I wrote the novel but no-one wanted it. I threw it away. I started others, got bogged down, gave them up. Things got slow. After a while I was barely writing at all. I'd never quite made it back to uni either. Now it was mostly pub work, and sleeping late, and the wasting of days. A steady decline. Happy Birthday then, Australia.

One of the Chinese came into the kitchen. He was better dressed for the heat than me—as most of them usually were—naked except for a pair of white Y-front underpants. This one was tall, lean, dark-skinned and quite beautiful, as again, most of them were. William and I were constantly shamed by them. Both of us were pale and overweight, patched red with rashes from sweat. We took to keeping our shirts on, no matter how hot it got. The two of us, western decadents.

He said, 'You will be home all today?'

'Probably. Why?'

'We all going out. You take messages?'

'What messages?'

'Work. Jobs.'

'I see. Yes, I'll be home all day.'

'Thank you.'

He was gone. There were more discussions in Chinese in the hallway, then the front door slammed and it was silent. The house to myself. It was a rarity. I sat there. Just past midday. There were at least twelve waking hours ahead of me. I sneezed. Once, twice, three times. My eyes watered. The familiar, first itch of hayfever settled. I headed for the antihistamines.

The first couple of weeks of Li and Michael's residence had passed painlessly. Indeed, William and I were aware that the living arrangements offered no small opportunity for cross-cultural interchange. After all, neither of us knew much about China. And Li and Michael, it was clear, knew equally little about Australia.

On their first night thus we introduced them to Fourex beer and the one-day cricket on TV. Our intentions seemed sound, but it wasn't a great success. The cricket meant nothing to them, and they found the Fourex merely amusing. It seemed the Fourex stubbie was identical in shape to a bottle used for some foul Chinese laxative. After that we asked them about the political situation in China. 'Not good,' they replied, and showed no interest in commenting further. They asked us about job prospects in Brisbane.

'What sort of jobs?' we asked.


'We thought you were here to study.'

'Yes, but we have no dollars.'


'Getting here very expensive.'

'Of course.'

'Rent here very expensive.'

The conversations never really improved. William and I ran out of polite questions about China, and Li and Michael offered nothing more themselves. Their prime concern was finding work. They had paid in advance for the private college that would teach them English and Engineering, but for day-to-day living they needed cash. Every morning they rose early and went out searching.

They tried Chinatown in the Valley first, but hundreds of other Chinese students were already after the limited jobs there. They asked William if there was any work going in the dishwasher installation trade. He said there wasn't. They asked me if there was any work in the pub trade. I thought about my boss, and his attitude to Asians, Blacks, The Unemployed, Anyone. I said it was unlikely. They looked further afield, out of walking distance. They came to me for help in deciphering bus timetables. I was of no use. I had my own car. I'd barely caught a bus in my life.

Finally they came to William.

'We cannot pay this rent,' said Michael, 'Not without a job.'

'That's a pity,' said William.

'We have two friends. They just come from Shanghai. They need rooms.'


'Between four we could pay.'

'You mean two to a room?'

'Yes. Same rent, but between four. Or else we have to leave.'

William thought for a moment. I knew what he was thinking. Basically there were the house repayments to meet, and if Li and Michael left, then there were all those empty weeks while we looked for someone else.

'Okay,' William said, 'Sure.'

They moved in that afternoon. Our two new housemates were named Xo and Robert. Robert's English was bad and Xo had none at all. They were also from Shanghai, also English and Engineering students, and also in need of work.

Time passed. The Chinese, now that there were four of them, kept mostly to themselves. In the evenings the kitchen was used to cook two separate meals. Mine and William's, and the Chinese's. Not that William and I cooked many meals. There was a takeaway down the road and we often ordered our meals there. The Chinese cooked every night. They made their dishes out of cheap leftover cut-s from the markets. William and I rarely asked, or were invited, to join in. Within a few weeks communication between East and West had come down to little more than the odd nod when we bumped into each other in the kitchen, or on the way to the toilet.

Then one day the four of them came to William. None of them had found any work yet. 'We cannot afford this rent,' they said.

Two more of their friends moved in. Students, fresh from Shanghai, no money and no work. I didn't bother learning their names.

The day showed no signs of picking up. Even TV was no help. Bad midday movies and poor reception. I settled on the back steps. I sneezed a few more times. Hayfever made the light painful. The antihistamines swung in. I stared at the mango tree in the back corner of the yard. Over-ripe mangos littered the ground beneath it. Somewhere, several houses away, someone was playing a record that sounded like Cossack dance music. I could hear the faint clapping and stamping of feet, the sound drifting across the roofs. No dancing here, I thought.

I got up and headed back to my room. I looked at the computer on the desk. I'd purchased it to help with my writing, in the more hopeful days. Before that I'd written on an electric typewriter. Before that it was an old manual, and before that again it was with a fountain pen on finely-crafted paper. One thing I'd learned from it all—the method didn't matter when you had nothing to write about. The computer was coated with dust. I thought about switching it on. Didn't.

Drinking then. There was nothing in the house, but the Queen's Arms Hotel and its bottle shop was just down the road. The only problem was that I took no joy in drinking alone, either in bars or at home. I didn't know why. All it meant was that to drink I had to find at least one partner. That often involved spending time with people I had no real interest in seeing, or them me. It made the drinking dull and pointless, but it was better than not drinking at all.

I ran through my list of friends and acquaintances. There was only one who I thought might be interested on a slow weekday afternoon. His name was Leo. He was a bank teller who'd quit work and was waiting now to start university. I dialled his number.

'Leo,' I said, 'It's Gordon.'

'Gordon. What's news.'

'Nothing. You interested in a few drinks this afternoon?' He was yawning. 'Well ... what'd you have in mind?'

'Just a beer or two.'


'Here. Or down at the pub.'

'What about coming over here? My parents are away for the week, I've got the house to myself.'

I thought about it. Leo lived with his parents, out in the suburbs. It was a large, two-storey brick house. Inside was scrupulously neat. Somehow I never felt relaxed visiting there, parents or no parents.

I said, 'You're not interested in coming over this way?'

'I'd just as soon hang around here.'

'Well, I don't feel much like moving myself.'

'That's that then.'

'Guess so.'

'I don't really like drinking at your place all that much Gordon. It's always so bloody crowded.'

'The Chinese are out at the moment.'

'They'll be back.'

'I guess they will.'

'It's a shitful day for it anyway.'


We talked a while longer, hung up. I thought about a few other people I could try, lost interest. It was a shitful day for it. I got up and made for the toilet. Leo was right about the other thing too. The house was too bloody crowded.

In the end we had nine Chinese students living there. The floors of their two rooms were covered with mattresses, and they took the sleeping in rotation. They paid ten dollars each in weekly rent. During the day they filled up the living room and the kitchen, cooking, talking, poring over the job columns. Nine lean, dark, Y-fronted bodies. William had lost control. He sat on his chair and smoked endlessly and stared at the television. He'd never been a talkative man, now he said nothing at all.

I spent the days wandering about the house, dodging the Chinese, ignoring them and ignored by them. Eleven people in residence and I felt as if I was living alone. I wasn't even sure this type of mass-rental was legal. But although a few of the Chinese did manage to find part-time work, they remained desperately poor. Even ten dollars a week was a burden to them. Where else were they going to go?

At least their social lives were improving. They started bringing women home. Female Chinese students. The boys pooled their resources and bought six-packs of beer and extra cigarettes when they entertained. An ancient Chinese woman began appearing whenever the girls did. Some sort of chaperone, I assumed. Several times she took it upon herself to clean our kitchen, shooing William and his marijuana out with her broom. The Chinese, both men and women, apologised. They said they didn't like the old woman, didn't even want her there. They asked William to make her go away. He only looked at them, then took his television off to his bedroom and brooded.

Increasingly I retreated to my room. I stopped using the kitchen. I ate meat pies and fish cakes and chips from the takeaway. Greasy wrappers and small piles of salt gathered around my bed. I switched on the computer from time to time, switched it off. I lay and stared at the ceiling, listening to the Chinese outside my door. Went to work at the pub, came home. Nothing much else happened. December passed into the New Year, the New Year into late January. And then it was February. The ninth or the tenth or the eleventh.

I stared into the toilet as I pissed. The water in the bowl was a dark yellow, the smell of urine enough to make me gag. That was the Chinese again. They only flushed for shits. I understood that. Shanghai was a massive city with water-supply problems, you didn't waste water on unnecessary toilet flushing. It was small of me to be squeamish. It showed a lack of cultural tolerance. But still, eleven people had pissed in that bowl. I finished, pressed the button and got out of there.

Someone was knocking on the front door. I moved down the hall and opened it. It was a Chinese man, young, unfamiliar.

'Hello,' he said.


He held a suitcase in one hand, and a piece of paper in the other. He lifted up the paper and read out a street number. 'Is that here?'


He grinned. 'I come from airport. I told I live here.'

'You live here?'

'My friends live here, yes?'

'I guess they do.'

'Then I live here.'

We looked at each other. He laughed nervously. It was a new country and a new town and he was all alone. I wasn't giving much of a welcome.

I sighed. 'Come on in.'

He followed me down the hall. I showed him the bedrooms. 'In there. They're all out at the moment.'

'They will be long?'

'No idea.'

I sat on the living room couch. He put his suitcase just inside one of the bedrooms, then stood, looking around. Finally he sat on the edge of one of the other chairs, hands on his knees. We were silent for a minute, avoiding each other's eyes.

'This is nice house,' he said, and smiled at me.

'Yes,' I said. I didn't smile back.

It was time, I decided, to move.

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1988 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just started reading this book and it's pretty intense so far. Reminds me a bit of the Alex Garland novel THE BEACH with a little of the film RAIN MAN mixed in. Very interesting!!