Whish-Wilson, David. The Sawdust House. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2022. RRP $32.99, 304pp, ISBN: 9781760990374.
They say to write what you know, but if David Whish-Wilson’s latest novel is anything to go by, then there’s a solid argument for writing what you love; because The Sawdust House is his best book yet.
The Sawdust House is the story of Australian ex-convict James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan, rotting in jail in San Francisco in 1856 while around him fellow prisoners are led to the gallows one by one. Sullivan is no ordinary man—despite his chequered past he’s made a name for himself as one of America’s most celebrated boxers. Newspaperman Thomas Crane has been tasked with being Sullivan’s confessor, but as Sullivan recounts his life, Crane finds himself the man’s unwitting biographer.
Part of the appeal of this book is the way that the narrative is constructed; rather than just have Sullivan relay his life point-by-point to Crane, we instead get a glimpse into the minds and lives of multiple characters. Some pages only contain a single sentence, but it is this economy of language—as well as the empty space between these words—that keeps the story clipping along at a compelling pace.
Whish-Wilson’s style—even in his crime fiction—has always erred on the side of the literary, resulting in novels rich with imagery and original descriptions. The first impressions of Sullivan are documented in true writerly style by Crane, and paint a clear picture of the man who is to be his subject:
His voice is soft and wonderfully alien to me, like the song of a new species of bird […] His face is handsome and symmetrical and his eyes are hidden in shadow. Every now and then he glances at the door and his eyes glitter like jewelled greenstones whose facets are wrong. (18)
The darkness which Crane sees in Sullivan, and which he feels threatened by, is communicated economically through those uncanny, jewelled greenstones. With this precise use of language, the reader is impacted far more than they would be by detailed, lengthy descriptions.
Character is another thing that Whish-Wilson does particularly well. Without it being explicitly stated we are aware—within a few pages—that Crane is a timid man, intimidated by the masculinity and stature of his subject. In turn, Sullivan has an overwhelming presence and seems to fill the jail cell he’s imprisoned in. However, small observations of these characters’ actions and body language give a deeper insight into who they really are:
The prisoner’s hands alternate between clenching and ironing the seams of his trousers with the flat of his hands. There are small stars of light in the corners of his eyes. His voice has lost its joviality and there is tension in the shape of his bent body, like he is hiding or protecting something fragile in his lap. (34)
Crane expects a toughened fighter in Sullivan, a man who is embodied violence and aggression. But as the narrative progresses, the toll, both emotional and physical, that life has had on Sullivan becomes apparent and reveals a more fragile side to him than might be expected. This is hinted at again through shining eyes, and a sense of the uncanny that reveals more of Sullivan’s character, just like those ‘jewelled greenstones’ did previously.
This is a violent book in that its very subject is a man who is heralded for his ability to be aggressive towards other men. But Whish-Wilson is never superfluous with violence and instead uses this aspect of the book to explore stereotypes of masculinity and uncover the mental drain that such a life would have on a person. Often, it is Sullivan’s voice through which we make these discoveries.
I were cursed with an ability to fight like a devil and were stupid enough to believe that this were a thing that can be turned on and off like a tap. It were not so. It is not so now. It is like I’ve got a pair of ghost arms and fists that are always shaped up before my face, like I’ve got a pair of ghost legs and feet that dance about me and never give me peace. (111)
Sullivan is haunted by himself, and by his ability to fight to the death if required. That he cannot turn his violence off highlights the tensions which make up the very essence of himself. Fighting is not glory for him, but a means of survival which has left him irreparably damaged.
In The Sawdust House, Whish-Wilson has crafted a complex and compelling tale of a little-known figure in Australian and American history. The book is compelling reading, and its form and characters maintain a hold on your attention until the very last page. Sullivan’s story is poignant and full of fire, and is worth every second of your time.
Jen is a writer, editor, podcast host and event moderator based in Brisbane. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Fremantle Press and now teaches writing, journalism and publishing at Curtin University, where she’s also doing her PhD in creative writing.