Beyond Words: A Year with Kenneth Cook
University of Queensland Press, $29.95
Memoirs come in myriad shapes, with different pretensions and devices. Some declare their purpose – reverence, catharsis, reclamation, grief – only to founder because of evasion or timidity. Rupert Christiansen, reviewing Joan Plowright’s memoirs, asked: “Why bother to write your memoirs if your instinct is to button your lip?”
There is nothing “buttoned” about Jacqueline Kent’s memoir of her brief relationship with Kenneth Cook, author of Wake in Fright (1961). Indeed, she brings a striking degree of verisimilitude – an almost eerie recall – to the project, as if she has been living it, drafting it, for decades. In an interview with the Herald she acknowledged that the book was many years in the making. First she drafted a novel, then a more scholarly biography, only to conclude: “Bugger it, this is a love story, forget the lit crit.”
Kent – a former ABC journalist – was working as a book editor when she first met Cook at a dinner party in 1985. This was long before she turned to biography – the celebrated studies of Beatrice Davis, Hephzibah Menuhin and Julia Gillard. Cook, 20 years her senior, was in a different place: bankrupted, estranged from his wife, drinking and smoking too much. The book and film that had made him famous were in the past: the swift one-draft novels no longer came.
Soon they began working on a collection of humorous bush stories (The Killer Koala). It was an unlikely pairing. Kent was bookish, independent, ambitious: Cook chauvinistic, “unused to being edited” and generally worn-out (“He looked as if some air had leaked out of him”). Cook believed that alcohol made him a better writer; at times Kent felt like Lillian Hellman to his Dashiell Hammett.
Yet the attraction was deep and after a series of boozy lunches Cook moved into Kent’s tiny flat. Theirs was not a glamorous life: Cook had too much baggage and the bankruptcy people were still after him. Yet it was a passionate relationship and before long Cook asked Kent to marry him.
One of the best passages in the book comes when Kent, formerly reluctant to discuss her childhood, tells Cook about her own family: the unhappy, medicated mother who died of a stroke at 51; the young sister who soon followed because of a drug overdose; and her uncommunicative war veteran father, who “had some kind of breakdown”. Just enough is said here, feelingly.
Like all memoirists, Kent settles a few scores. Among them are Morris West and one friend who tried to talk her out of marrying Cook (“He’s old and buggered”). Lauding the “lunatic, passionate” book industry of the 1980s, she regrets the new supremacy of “bean counters” and marketing managers. She salutes Cook as the kind of man who “no longer seems to exist in the relatively pinched, cautious literary world of today”.
Wallace Shawn, the American playwright, once wrote, “They warn you life’s short. They don’t warn you it’s simultaneous.” So it proved for Kent a few months after her marriage. One morning Cook announced that he “wanted to get on the road again”. The road, despite Kent’s reservations, led to the bush, west of Dubbo. On the way Cook’s mood changed, bewildering his wife. Curt, disengaged, he became a kind “grim-faced stranger”. Unable to find a hotel room, he decided to camp by the Macquarie River. The mood was fractious, not the right time for a rapprochement (“Where’s the bloody whisky?” he demanded). Then Cook – clearly in trouble throughout the journey – slumped on his side and died from a heart attack.
This is the rawest writing in the book and thus the best. Kent’s precise prose suits the hunt for help, the petty indignities of death. Eventually Kent roused an ambulance driver in Narromine. That night she stayed at the Peppercorn Motel, a bottle of whisky her only solace. In the restaurant a woman tried to condole with her: “But at least it wasn’t bowel cancer … You know, you can get a kit to check.”
Kent’s ear for the vernacular is keen. (Only a running gag about Sylvia Plath and gas ovens is ill-advised.)
The aftermath was gloomy. Kent was enlisted to promote Cook’s final volume of bush stories, Frill-Necked Frenzy, and a national tour followed. Cook’s four children – with whom she had enjoyed equivocal relations – sold the couple’s apartment without informing Kent. Widowed at 39, she drifted for a time, eventually “finding love again” and setting out on a new path, as one of the country’s finest biographers. Vida Goldstein, auspiciously, is next: a fascinating, complex feminist, and possibly an easier subject than Cook.
Peter Rose’s books include Rose Boys (Text), a family memoir.
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