Young Joe Coppock is lying in bed at home, alone, recuperating from an unspecified illness. (He gets sickly headaches and has to stay out of the sun; he also has one good eye and one “wonky” one, and has to wear a patch over the good one to make his brain set the wonky one right.) A train passes — the only train Joe ever hears, which he’s nicknamed Noony because it passes at noon — and he hears a call from the yard outside:
“Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!”
Joe rushes to find a rag (an old pair of pyjamas) and a bone (a lamb’s shoulder blade he’s stored with his little collection of bird’s eggs). In return, the rag-and-bone man gives him a donkey stone (used for whitening doorsteps, and which here bears an ancient horse symbol on its back) and his choice of pot from a chest on the rag-and-bone man’s cart — a chest which, oddly, has Joe’s name on it. Joe picks a small white cup with the words “Poor Man’s Friend” on it, that contains a tiny fragment of violet-green paste. The rag-and-bone man’s eyes are the same colour. His name is Treacle Walker, and as well as being a rag-and-bone man, claims to be a healer, of “All things; save jealousy. Which none can.” (“Treacle” originally meaning medicine, apparently.)
They go inside to the hearth and Treacle Walker produces a bone flute, which he lets Joe play. Joe produces a couple of notes, which are instantly answered by the call of a distant cuckoo — a cuckoo we never see (though Joe certainly tries to, as he wants to add one of its eggs to his collection) but which seems to preside over the rest of the novel, as though by playing his notes and waking this bird, Joe has set something in motion.
But what? What is going on here? It soon becomes apparent that, however normal Joe’s convalescent life may seem at first, it’s anything but. We never see his parents. Things only seem to happen at noon, after the hoot of the train lets Joe know what time it is. And noon is when the sun is at its strongest, so it’s when Joe isn’t supposed to be outside. It’s as though his recovery, his need to stay out of the sun, his only seeming to exist in the noon of the day, are all a way of showing that Joe is stuck, his life composed of rituals (like the list of places he routinely checks from his window, to see who might be out there). And his home is an oddly reduced sort of home, consisting only of a bed (for rest and recovery), a hearth (for warmth, and conversations), and a door (to keep the unwanted out). Not so much a real home, then, as the archetype of one — a home in a dream, or a memory of homes past.
Treacle Walker comes to this world unasked for, and offers few answers as to why he’s here. He speaks a sort of nonsense (though, knowing Garner, it’s all, I’m sure, authentic dialect and abstruse vocabulary): “craven nidget”, “my amblyopic friend”, “the hurlothrumbo of winter”, “a lomperhomock of night”, “furibund”. “Such tarradiddles,” he exclaims at one point, “such macaronics. Such nominies for a young head.” He later claims:
“I have been through Hickety, Pickety, France and High Spain, by crinkum, crankims, crooks and straights.”
Treacle Walker comes across as a mix between the old wizard Cadellin of Garner’s first two books, and Murrangurk, a.k.a Strandloper, from his novel of that name — a walkabout tramp and shaman, a wise man of quiet power and mystery. But with his nonsensical hints, he’s also a bit of a Cheshire Cat to Joe’s Alice (and Joe soon takes his own trip through the Looking Glass, chasing a trio of characters who have emerged from his favourite comic). Perhaps we’re not in the real world, then, but a sort of Garner version of Wonderland.
Joe, it turns out, has a bit of Strandloper about him, too, but where William Buckley had to go through a hellish journey in the bowels of a ship and the unforgiving outback of Australia to learn to see the sacred in his home landscape, Joe already has the gift of second sight thanks to his “wonky” eye, as he learns when he goes to have it tested. Looking at an eye chart, he sees the usual jumble of random letters with one eye, but with the other sees letters that spell out what Joe doesn’t at the time know to be a pair of “catalectic hexameters” (more of Treacle Walker’s educated nonsense) in Latin. Later, venturing into a local patch of marsh, he finds that, when he looks at it with his special eye, it stretches off forever, as though he were seeing the present and the past in the landscape at once — like Murrangurk the shaman, in all but that he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing or why.
In the bog, Joe meets Thin Amren, a naked man in a leather hood who has, till now, been sleeping (and dreaming) under the water. Was he woken by Joe’s cuckoo call on the bone flute? It’s fairly clear that, just as the mark on the donkey stone resembles the White Horse of Uffington, Thin Amren is a bog-body, one of those eerie sacrifices preserved in the waters from ancient times. What’s he doing walking about, talking to Joe? And what of the characters that emerge from Joe’s comic, the Knockout (whose name, like the waters of the dreaming bog, implies a state of unconsciousness), Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit and his adversaries Whizzy the Wizard and the Brit Bashers? Why is Joe surrounded by imaginary characters?
Perhaps, though, that’s the wrong way to put it. Perhaps Joe isn’t so much surrounded by imaginary characters as in his natural element. Perhaps he’s imaginary himself. Because, to me, Treacle Walker reads like it’s all taking place inside Garner’s head. These are all characters we’ve met in his fiction before, in different forms. Joe is, though younger, like so many of Garner’s troubled young male protagonists, with their “badly” fits and visions. Like those boys and men — the Tom/Thomas/Macey of Red Shift, the William Buckley of Strandloper — he has his totemic objects, his nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but actually ancient or old or magical artefacts. They had their “Bunty”, their “grallus”, their “swaddledidaff”; Joe has his marbles (with their nonsensical schoolboy names, his “dobber glass alley”, and his “blood alley”), his “Poor Man’s Friend” cup, his donkey stone — he has a whole host of totemic nonsense objects, in fact. But each of these characters is a progression, a variant, and here, for the first time, we have a young Garner protagonist not in a relationship with a woman whose work it is to heal him (in fact, there are no women in the book). But there is still healing going on, and as in those earlier books it’s healing that works through telling, through story, through opening up despite the difficulty in doing so. (This book has its equivalent of the invitation-to-tell-a-story conversation that occurs in other Garner books. Here, it’s “Tell me.” “I can’t.” repeated three times, before the dam breaks and the telling starts.)
However much the setting, here, resembles that of Garner’s own childhood, it’s not a real world. At one point, Treacle Walker calls the yard outside Joe’s home “this Middle-Yard”, and makes it sound like the Middle-Earth of norse myth, the region between heaven and hell where men spend their brief mortal moment, which might as well be a dream.
If Joe is a sort of Tom/Thomas/Macey, and Treacle Walker a Cadellin and a Murrengurk, what of Thin Amren, the bog man who should be dreaming? Perhaps he’s that other presence that lurks in Garner’s fiction, the Sleeper Under the Hill (and Joe briefly goes out to a hill and feels the presence of a sleeper under it, and also feels a “Nothing. No one. Only loss”, like an echo of the deep sense of emptiness and isolation in Tom from Red Shift or Colin from Boneland, though here it’s only a moment, then it’s gone). Thin Amren is a dreamer, and whether he’s a figure from Joe’s inner life, or Joe is his dream, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that between them they represent the young present rooted in the ancient past, and in this they sum up the entire Garner double-vision view of the world. They aren’t cause and effect, but coexistent.
Near the end of this very short novel, Joe asks a question of Treacle Walker (whom Thin Amren, another dialect nonsense-talker, calls “that pickthank psychopomp”) which might be a solution to this whole situation, but if so, it’s a throwaway one. I prefer my feeling that all the characters, here, are Garner archetypes, and it’s all taking place in the author’s dream-time world. What we have here, then, is Garner’s autobiography, not of facts or reminiscences, but of his dreaming self, in which the boy he once was, the sick kid in bed who was twice declared dead, turns into the shamanistic wanderer, the healer and storyteller, the combined tramp-and-wizard, the bog-man dreamer and comic-reading little boy, all in one. (And I can’t help likening the cuckoo Joe wakes with his playing of the bone flute with the idea that Garner, as a young man, came to feel alienated from both his family and the landscape he’d grown up in, when he was the first of them to be educated, and so to come to see the world through both the folkloristic view of his family, and the archeological and historical view of a scientist. That, perhaps, was the cuckoo-call that set off his own writerly journey.) This is the story of how all these dualities are in fact one thing, and how they return to that oneness, through the calling of a cuckoo and a chase through mirrors. And, like all of Garner’s books, it’s a story of healing — self-healing.
One more thing to say is that, for perhaps the first time in his novels, I really feel Garner, here, is having fun. Not that there isn’t distress and peril and pain (Joe’s headaches, his being chased through mirror-worlds, the loneliness he feels on the hill), but there’s an air of nonsense-play, and a fondness for the little things of distant childhood (comics, marbles, trains, bird’s eggs) that far outweighs the darker elements.
It’s a dream, this novel, a making sense through image and archetype, on the level of imagination and story, which has, really, been the trajectory of Garner’s novels from the start. This, perhaps, is it in its purest, most concentrated, yet lightest, form yet.