Review: ALL THE OLD DUDES All that Wasted Heat, Jonathan Hadwen

by

ALL THE OLD DUDES

All that Wasted Heat – Jonathan Hadwen (Vine Leaves Press, 2017)

 

Review by Carmen Leigh Keates

This short book of vignettes is dedicated to, along with the author’s partner, the Brisbane suburb of New Farm. This is an area that I know intimately. The men’s hostels that are given so much attention in this work are located on Merthyr Road, where I lived for a brief time, and where years later I am sure one of my neighbours from another unit block in New Farm moved to when his rental changed hands. That neighbour was an elderly bachelor from Eastern Europe, outwardly presenting as alcoholic, as do many of the men Hadwen depicts; men whose loneliness and dysfunction is plain to those of us who live, or have lived, in close proximity to them. Very often (and this book highlights the tendency) this loneliness neither receives any specific attention nor is offered any ongoing help: it is seen instead to be part of the fabric of the place we all inhabit. In Hadwen’s book, however, there is the added layer of empathy in that the young speaker can see himself in these men, and depending on the character, he sees them either as a caution, or as an inevitability:

 

I see a man with his walker, shaking his way into the
front seat of a taxi as the driver waits. One day that will
be me.

 

The protagonist is aware of all those around him and a particular characteristic of the drama is how intensely he focusses on his neighbours and their preferences while at times seeming to maintain this awareness and connection with them so as ultimately not to be involved with them. Although I did not always agree with the order of the vignettes, the persistence of the observations’ calm tone is one of the work’s great strengths. In these observations the neighbours are shown to be quite fascinating, in a peripheral way, and the energy remains quiet and almost adoring, but, interestingly, the details flag things that are distinct irritants – like the man who throws bread on the roof to feed the birds, but the old bread that is left over attracts rats. So this world is presented to us as a sort of survey, or a birds-eye view, dream-like Queensland version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, without the murder.

 

An old man called John turns up in the story – again, this is my territory as I am sure I know who this John is. The point of the anecdote in the book (which I do not think is trying to be strictly non-fiction) is that John passes away when the protagonist is overseas, so when he returns he realises that, in his own mind, the dead man has been, for a period, still somewhere “alive for me, pottering around his small house, reading, tending the plants of his vegetable garden,” and this is much like his attitude to his existing neighbours, whom he tends in his mental inventory but does not impose upon with ordinary ‘friendship’. Indeed, the speaker just likes to know the people are there, without going much beyond that. When things change, it’s inevitable and not resisted, however, all change in this part of the neighbourhood and with these elderly residents seems to be, without exception, very sad.

 

The title comes from a particular vignette about tolerating the sun blasting into the apartment in winter—tolerating the discomfort of the ‘glare’ for an idea of something greater and more sustaining, something for the good of the group. And flocks of birds figure all throughout this little book, always hunting after food, mostly noisily, and with the speaker himself finally realising he is known to and even monitored by them, seeing himself through the birds’ eyes because, “I am big, and warm, and always watching”. But there are also the frequent tropes of air and breathing (or coughing); space — people being alone, lonely, and then infringed upon; and of course heat, brewing (coffee) and precipitation:

 

The storm threatens, but never comes. The bruised
mass charges on, eastwards towards the bay. The sun
returns with its fistful of heat, and the birds are there,
basking in the palms above the hostel, a second dawn
to celebrate. They natter about seeds, or death, or
nothing.

 

The vignette format makes for quite compulsive reading and is perhaps a logical place for writers to operate in these days; it may be a superficial call based on digital reading styles, but I think we seem increasingly to like pace, strongly demarcated paragraphs, series rather than very large single works. The publisher, Vine Leaves Press, has fifteen books so far in its vignettes collection and has an award dedicated to the form. The fact that it intersects very easily with poetry or at least deploys a poetic sensibility is interesting too; I certainly read many of Hadwen’s pages as poetry (for instance, the quote above, with its “fist” and its “palm”) and as well as this revisited form being promising in so many ways, Hadwen’s contribution has a voice that is appropriately spare at the same time as being unexpectedly warm in its attentiveness.

 

 

 

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