Novel takes on Adelaide’s student radicals with authenticity

Doug McEachern’s novel follows the progress and regress of the two friends as “endless acrimonious debates over militancy” pepper their student group house in inner-city North Adelaide.

Stardust & Golden

Doug McEachern

UWA Publishing, 2018

208 pages

Two Adelaide University students from opposite ends of the social scale — Mark (solid proletarian stock) and Stephen (from the leafier postcodes) — discover they have something in common.  There is a war in Vietnam to stop and a hide-and-seek game of conscription to navigate.

They both register for the call-up ballot in full anti-war mode (T-shirt and leaflet), outside the offices of the Department of Labour and National Service. They trust to luck that their numbers won’t come up or hope to string out student deferral of the khaki crunch point.

Doug McEachern’s novel follows the progress and regress of the two friends as “endless acrimonious debates over militancy” pepper their student group house in inner-city North Adelaide. 

Mark, the most militant, although not a patch on the unruly Maoists and anarchists, makes a tactical error while leading an anti-war march through the city. He takes the protesters too close to police, flicking the spring that unleashes the coiled fury of the state, primed for any pretext to exercise physical and judicial muscle.

Arrests, farcical trials, and convictions made and overturned, are followed by the two young men’s looming decisions about whether to go underground as draft resisters after receiving the fateful letter announcing their “success” in the conscription lottery. Their choice of response will, it turns out, carry great human cost.

Four decades on, and Mark, a “fed-up” oil industry consultant, chucks in his job and revisits those days and their legacy of “unwanted memories” and “unfinished business” that afflicted the household. These are not just to do with the war, but also an unwanted pregnancy.

At times, the characters’ relationships teeter on the Melrose Place edge. Mary — the Christian non-violent direct actionist — sums it up in “I love Angela and she doesn’t love me. She loves Stephen and Stephen doesn’t love her. Jane and Edward pretend to live together but they’re always falling apart.”

But, like the 1990s cult TV soap, it is oddly compelling.  Unlike shallow B-grade Hollywood dross, there are also large matters of political and social import at stake in the personal travails.

McEachern, a ’60s anti-war campaigner, then university academic and now novelist in south coast retirement in South Australia, writes what he knows about first-hand. This gives his novel authenticity.

There is a bit of preliminary throat-clearing, scene-setting and character development that takes a while to move up through the gears before the story takes on an independent life of its own. It then motors towards a climax that avoids neat conclusion, is never quite predictable and carries some emotional power.

So, there are some “first novel nerves”, but the book turns out alright on the night. McEachern has the makings of a fine novelist and we should look forward to more to come from him.

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