Book review: Tank Water by Michael Burge

(cover image courtesy Newsouth Books)

Growing up in a place where your lived experience is not part of the mainstream is daunting indeed.

It becomes even more pronounced in rural areas where the lack of anonymity provided by the diversity hustle and bustle of the big city leaves many people exposed and open to ridicule, abuse, bullying and far, far worse.

Just how much worse has been clear to onetime country boy and now city-based journalist James Brandt for some reason, with the happily almost-married gay man having left the small town of Kippen back in his teens when his parents’ marriage broke up, never to look back again.

That is until, at the haunting start of Michael’s Burge’s debut novel, Tank Water, the body of his beloved cousin Tony is found submerged under the local bridge, a place where homophobic attacks are known to happen, some of which turn deadly with one alienated Kippen farm boy being found dead every generation or so.

Something is clearly wrong in the otherwise bucolic surrounds of Kippen where the Brandts have lived for generations, their farms joined together on a lane named after them, their stake on the land firm and immovable.

But as James will attest, surety of tenure on the land means little when the family is unwilling to admit to, let alone countenance, the fact that among their number are men who don’t fit the orthodoxy of a rugged straight worker of the land, leaving them alone in a family which is supposed to welcome them into its very heart.

“‘Can I ask you about the family tree?’ James said.

Tony flicked a look at his younger cousin, and smirked. ‘Nah, ask me about it at tea time,’ and turned away.

That left James to make a start the same way he began everything.

Alone.” (P. 23)

Upon finding, when he arrives in town for Tony’s funeral, that he’s inherited all three farms, willed to him by Tony who as the last remaining Brandt boy in town got everything – it’s telling that james’ cousin Yvonne, Tony’s sister gets nothing, cut out of inheritance by feudalistically outdated ideas that find expression in other, far darker, ways – James sets about using his journalistic skills to find out just how rotten the heart of Kippen is, and what part his family plays in it.

He is stymied in his efforts by his dad, Daniel, a man who undoubtedly loves his sons but who has undoubtedly felt cut off from them ever since his ex-wife left Kippen and took her and Daniel’s two sons back to the city.

Daniel is very much a product of the town and his times, unwilling to investigate any hate gay hate crimes in the town simply everyone in the town collectively, and rather delusionally, refuses to accede that the attacks even took place or are still taking place (they are as James experiences when he is the victim of one such terrifying attack by someone whose family may have been instrumental in Tony’s death which looks less and less a suicide and more a murder).

Thus is set in train a narrative that is part murder mystery, part reckoning of decades-old pain, hurt and suffering, and part coming to grips with an unpalatable truth which James knows his family, and the town, are going to have to do one way or the other.

Michael Burge (image courtesy (c) Max S. Harding)

Tank Water is a searingly evocative and powerfully moving novel which uses largely slow, nuanced storytelling, split between 1985, when James is a fifteen-year-old, in town for Tony’s wedding to Leanne, struggling with his nascent sexuality, and 2005 when the gay prodigal returns for Tony’s funeral.

For a story which packs a mighty emotional punch and goes to great length to expose the decayed underbelly of rural life, as least as far as it comes to queer people in its midst, Tank Water is a gently immersive read which compels with its richly drawn characters, its pulling together of familial and societal threads past and present and its braveness in calling out a broken world and a corrupted system set up to protect and perpetuate it.

As someone who grew up in a NSW country town and knows well how brutally scornful rural places, for all their loveliness, can be of people who differentiate from the norm, this gay reviewer understands how difficult it can be to be yourself in those circumstances.

While I had the advantage, if it can be called that, of growing up in an area that was somewhat open to difference and divergence, thanks to a sizeable population of hippies in its midst – the bullying was horrific and unrelenting and didn’t not cease for one day of my schooling – James and others do not, constantly lost in a brutally-enforced heteronormative culture that is unwilling to concede the world is not universally moulded in its own image.

“When he turned the engine over, it coughed, but he pumped the accelerator and reached for the unfamiliar stick shift. It took two goes to put it into reverse, then a case of beginner’s luck saw James achieve his exit from the paddock quickly, quietly and efficiently before disappearing along the lane.

As he checked for anyone following, James spotted the slab of beer in the back.

Booze purchase throws suicide verdict into doubt.” (P. 197)

With a pitch-perfectly realised protagonist at its heart – first, a confused teen James, and then an older wiser man in his thirties determined to get the truth about Tony and find some semblance of resolution for his pain and alienation, Tank Water is a brilliantly impactful love that grips you from the word go and refuses to let go.

Unafraid to be honest about what life is like for gay men in rural areas – Burge is a gay man living with his husband in country NSW – both now, and then, Tank Water manages to same some truly powerful things about humanity and orthodoxy, hatred and acceptance without coming across as even remotely sturdent.

This is primarily because the novel makes its point through the undeniably, richly human story of James, his family and the townsfolk of Kippen, letting their stories make the point far more cleverly and strongly than kind of ranting polemic would ever achieve.

It is well nigh impossible, regardless of whether you are queer or not, to get to the end of Tank Water and not be changed in some way; its story is honest and searing, peopled by characters who, whether in denial or open to the truth of the world around them, have a lot to atone for or live for, and who will find, scary though it is, that the truth will set you even free, even if the revelations come close to breaking them wide open first.

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