Book Review: A Town Called Suckhole

Okay. You should probably let that cover sink in for a little bit.


That’s David W. Barbee’s novel, A Town Called Suckhole.

It’s one of those books that really resonates with me because it reminds me of a specific time and place. It happens a lot when I’m travelling or on holidays. Whenever I’m not home and I take the time to devour a good book, the book seems to stick with me better.

The first time I recall connecting with a book on this level was when I read Dorothy Porter’s verse novel, the Monkey’s Mask. I bought it in the Perth Domestic Airport and read it on the plane to Melbourne. I picked it up because I’d heard about the author and I’d heard some great stuff about the book. But my brother and my parents thought I was checking it out because of the naked lesbians on the cover. I read most of the book on the plane, and then finished it on the taxi to the hotel and in our hotel room that night. And the book itself reminds me of a time before that when I was taking a unit on Poetry, which was run by professor Brian Dibble. That was when I really gained an interest in writing and reading poetry. That was when he introduced the class to a Japanese poet called Matsuo Basho. That guy that’s famous for all the haiku he wrote. I’m pretty sure that it was on a later trip to Melbourne that I bought a collection of his work. But it was always that one haiku that stuck with me, that, obviously, had a large influence on Dorothy Porter. I’ve written about it several times before and it goes like this:

Year after year

On the monkey’s face

A monkey’s mask.

That’s Basho, and he’s brilliant. Dorothy Porter is brilliant too, but in a different way, and whenever I think of her, I think of that flight to Melbourne. That was when I first took notice of the verse novel as a literary form that I would love to work on some day down the track.

Then there was American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, which I read on another trip to Melbourne, where I was staying at a backpackers and doing a fair amount of reading in my dorm. And someone had left an Irvine Welsh novel in one of the lockers. It had a cat face thing on the cover and I think it was called Glue but I can’t remember and I can’t seem to find the cover online. And then there was V for Vendetta, which I read on that same trip on the flight home from Melbourne, and it was the first proper graphic novel I read.

And now we come to Suckhole. It was the beginning of February and I was taking the train to a town called Kalgoorlie in Western Australia for my cousin’s engagement party. It’s a seven hour trip, and I spent some of it reading, some of it taking notes on the book I had just started writing, and some of it watching tv shows and junk. I read a fair chunk of the book on the train there. Then I read a little while I was there, and I finished it off on the way home. Now, I don’t want to imply that my family is a bunch of hillbilly rednecks, but it felt kind of appropriate that I was reading Suckhole while I was holidaying in Kalgoorlie. It’s mainly just the fact that the city is out in the middle of nowhere, founded on a goldrush, and therefore, with all the dust and dirt and promise of great wealth without the prerequisite of education and intelligence, the town (and the state, I guess) can be read as a bogan’s paradise. And bogans are pretty much Australian rednecks. I’ve got nothing against the town or the people, but my setting seemed to fit nicely with the setting of the book.

The story itself is a little like this: Think of the Road. That book by Cormac McCarthy. Post-apocalyptic America, everything is ruined, everything is bleak and miserable. Picture that setting, and then picture the only survivors are mutant redneck hillbillies. That’s Suckhole, right there. And what a town it is! I love this book for its richly detailed setting populated with quirky, fascinating characters. It feels like David W. Barbee created a map of the town, and constructed it out of the junk he found lying around in the post-apocalypse wasteland. It feels like he took a trip down to Suckhole and noted down where everything is, what they look like, and it’s got a real pioneer town feel about it. Just a fleeting part of history that’ll be gone once civilisation kicks back up again. I guess that’s one reason why I felt a strong connection between Suckhole and Kalgoorlie. The pioneer town of old Kalgoorlie is something I only gained access to through history, museums, tours and such. I went there on a year five camp, and did the whole gold prospecting tour thing, and compared and contrasted it to the Kalgoorlie industry of more recent times, the underground mines and superpits and such, and I felt like Suckhole was one of those towns. I could see some time in the future, kids going to a contemporary Suckhole and checking out the little historical preservation part of town where they would learn all about Saint Hank and the Bledskoe sheriffs, and that intelligent swamp monster, Dexter Spikes. The story of how Dexter and Sheriff Jesco saved the town of Suckhole.

A Town Called Suckhole is populated with some superb imagery, some of the most fascinating characters and settings I’ve ever read, and once you get right into the plot, it’s like you’re caught in a suckhole and the only way out is to finish the book. In addition to setting, Barbee’s got some great scenes here, too. My favourite part of the book happens early on where Jesco’s father, Sheriff Billy Jack Bledscoe, asks the social outcast, Dexter Spikes, for help.

As quirky as it is, Suckhole could have easily gone for the gross-out humour and redneck jokes, to turn the book into a right comedic farce. But the town of Suckhole is entertaining enough as it is, and Barbee has gone for a character driven, and plot driven, story, which creates a sympathy for these woefully ignorant people, and that really brings the town of Suckhole to life.

Yeah, it’s bizarre, at times it’s pretty gross-out. But it’s really fucking cool, it’s brilliantly written, and very rewarding from a reader’s perspective. Hands down, it’s one of my favourite bizarro books.


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