Ben Hall is beginning to tire of life on the road. It isn’t as easy as it used to be and he isn’t getting any younger. He is starting to feel the aches and pains of sleeping on the ground:
He opened his eyes and began the job of feeling out his limbs. He was lying on his side; tolerably warm to the hips, but below them nothing. He moved his left leg and cold instantly replaced numbness as if a bucket of water had been tipped on him from the thighs down.
It is 1863 and Ben is no longer riding with Frank Gardiner. Now he rides with John Dunn and Jack Gilbert, who have each killed a man, thus placing a noose around his own neck if he’s caught alive. Ben wants to quit the game: takings aren’t as easy as they used to be; his own bank is substantial, but diminishing, and troopers and trackers are out in force following his trail and harassing his known associates and family.
The reward for his capture has been increased and Ben no longer knows who to trust. Jack and John are edgy; Ben often needs to keep the peace. Most of all, he desperately wants to get to know his son, who lives with his wife Biddy and Jack Turner, the man she left him for.
The language and description are sparse, befitting the landscape and the terrain of the three men as they lord it over mid-western New South Wales. Ben Hall’s most notorious acts, the robbing of the mail coach at Jugiong and the death of the trooper are covered, as is the killing of a policeman in Collector:
Ben looked at the boy with the horses. He still had a tight hold of the reins but was whimpering and had pissed in his trousers.
‘It’s all right, boy, no one’s goin’ to hurt you, just keep hold of them reins.’
The boy seemed not to hear. The whimpering turned to a thin mewling and he began to shake. Ben pushed the revolvers into his belt and walked to him.
‘Hey, look here at me, don’t look there.’
Kimberly had stood and come to the fence.
‘It’s the boy’s father.’
John heard, but was already stooping down for the shotgun. It had brought down a trap, it was going with him.
In his last year Ben contemplates a new life with his son and tries to make an emotional connection with the seven-year-old. While Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is the story of the struggle between the English settlers and the Irish workers, in Game Shearston looks at the inner struggle of a man trying to gain control of his life and weigh up meaning in his existence. Ben Hall is a man who has made a few choices that haven’t turned out right. Is he in too deep to get out of the rut and repetitiveness of his existence as the law closes in, or can he escape his fate and get to San Francisco with the remains of his fortune and his son?
Ben Hall is a both a tragic and charismatic figure, who instills strong loyalties as well as fear into his friends and family, who are the subject of constant visits from the troopers tracking him. He remains an enigmatic man who struggles to connect with his own son:
‘All right then. Plenty more I could say but that’s the important part. How about you?’
Knowing it would be folly to try and elicit anything warmer, Ben held out his hand.
He’d hoped, though, for more than the unadorned word.
By the time Ben has his son’s decision and he rides to fetch his remaining monies for the trip to San Francisco, this reader was seduced by the beauty of the stark and simple language and the story of this man riding back and forth, constantly on the move, seeking refuge and prey while he weighs up his choices and ponders the life he has led.
In a modern and multicultural Australia one might question the value of the Anglo-Celtic myths continuing to be fictionalised, as writers like PM Newton, Anita Heiss, Alice Pung and Gabrielle Wang give us alternative visions of the identity of our nation. But in the end, Game is the story of a man who seeks to understand his own life and choices, find his place in the world and foil his destiny; it can speak to us all.
Trevor Shearston Game Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 366pp $29.99
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