I’ve enjoyed Veny Armanno’s writing for so many years that it seems a difficult task to ‘review’ this latest release. I can unpack it through the pragmatic lens of the reviewer, or I can speak from the heart about my personal connections to Armanno’s writing and the ways in which it’s influenced my own career. Shall I do both?
Part one: The book review
Travel Under Any Star is a collection of stories – old and new – in a style I now think of as Armanno-esque. Fans will know exactly what I mean: passionate men who grapple with fatal flaws, siren women who lure them to their doom, family legacies that haunt one generation after another, mundane happenings in exotic locations – and vice versa. Spanning the late ’80s to now, this anthology showcases the evolution of Armanno’s writing as well as the familiar themes that linger across his whole oeuvre.
The collection opens with a novella, which shares its title with the collection. Inspired by a Bob Dylan lyric, Travel Under Any Star sees two young outsiders find the fire in their bellies amidst the oppressive regime of old-school Catholicism. Their paths diverge and intersect over the years, until tragedy strikes, leaving one forever fantasising about what might have been. If you have not read much of Armanno’s work, this is a perfect introduction. Star-crossed lovers are an Armanno staple, providing as they do so many opportunities to examine human frailties like jealousy, vulnerability and longing.
For me, however, Armanno’s strongest writing happens in shorter, more experimental stories. Park Güell, for example, is another tale of love gone wrong, but this time woven into an eerie ghost story where fact and fiction are hard to distinguish. A playful read, despite its morbid subject matter, Armanno draws on the tropes of horror movies and urban legends as a taxi driver and a preoccupied stranger exchange tall stories in a bar. The twist here is a self-conscious level of dialogue about what drives a good story, as these two interlocutors analyse the mechanics of their narrative while it unfolds.
‘This is not a true story,’ I said.
‘No, what is it then?’
‘Some imagining of yours. Something you made up to explain the presence of a dead man in that park. If there was such a man.’
‘You want me to stop?’
‘Not now. It’s quite amusing. The girl is titillating, of course, which is the effect you seek. Personally, I might have done without Giovanni’s family history, or the description of his boorish life and work, but you tell your story with a nicely ironic flair. So go on.’
Cinematic allusions are frequent in this collection, with many nods to the tension between our capacity to write the scripts of our own lives and the interference of fate or fortune. How do you want your story to end?
Cotton Year And Clock begins with the vibe of a hard-boiled detective drama but becomes an analysis of obsession and delusion; the protagonist suffers what the classics might call a passion-inspired ‘madness’, what we might now look upon more compassionately as disruptive mental health.
I Asked The Angels For Inspiration is a small story of share house love and ‘80s music in the streets and parks of Brisbane’s New Farm. This tale evokes the lusty passion and poor decision making that goes hand in hand with young adult attractions, but transcends the banal by connecting with the magical. Armanno has a gift for identifying the extraordinary in the everyday. The simple transformative power of nightfall, for example, for two friends sitting by the Brisbane river…
‘The surface of the river glittered. The day made it muddy but the night gave it magic. The air was sweet and the river was enchanted and the moon was the colour of snow.’
This story also contains a memorable quote: ‘Why does it take as little as a look to make me fall in love and as long as a lifetime to make me forget it?’ This sentiment goes to the heart of most of Armanno’s stories. Like Greek tragedies or Shakespearean bloodbaths, Armanno’s heroes are driven by primal desires and long held obsessions. His writing elevates the position of love and greed and anger and joy as motivators in ordinary lives. His heroes rarely make practical decisions and his endings are pleasingly untidy. The short story is a productive medium for attacking these big themes without crossing into melodrama and Armanno manages this with great skill.
Travel Under Any Star is published by Bareknuckle Books, RRP: $29.95
Part 2: The personal journey
Do you ever feel as though books find you, rather than the other way around? I often feel that way. Sometimes authors, too. Just when I need to hear their voice again, they appear with a new release, a new edition, even a film version of an old favourite perhaps. Veny Armanno is one of those authors for me. We go way back.
When I was a uni student in ‘90s Brisbane, Armanno’s early works, like Romeo of the Underworld and The Lonely Hunter, were among the first books I’d ever read set in my home city. It seemed Brisbane writers could do passion and mystery and even comedy, despite the heat, despite the shady politics, despite not being Sydney or Melbourne. Who knew?
By the late ‘90s, Armanno’s star was rising and I was waist deep in a PhD analysing the passage of Australian fiction into overseas markets. Could someone in France or Spain or England ‘get’ these tales, I wondered, with all their slang and local references? With the heat, the shady politics and the absence of Opera House references? Armanno’s books made for rich source material.
Then, while the ink was still fresh on my doctoral degree, I was sued for something I’d written about Veny Armanno in my thesis. Not by Veny, I should add, but by a journalist who didn’t like the cut of my jib. It’s a long story. But once again, Armanno’s work inadvertently pushed my career in a new direction. I tired of this small town and headed to London and a position at the British Library, where no one particularly cared about Brisbane writing.
Over time abroad the sour taste Brisbane had left in my mouth slowly gave way to the ex pat’s selective palate; I would vehemently praise our literary scene to anyone who asked – yet had little desire to return to it.
Fast forward to 2016. I’m once again living in Brisbane, juggling parenthood and part time work, putting a few rare spare minutes into this blog, dangling a nervous toe into the icy waters of literary criticism. As I flick through Facebook events, the Avid Reader bookstore encourages me to attend a launch. Veny Armanno has released a new book – and just in the nick of time!
So, here I am ready to reconnect with the Brisbane writing scene, to see what’s been going on in my absence, how things have changed – and Armanno hands me a guidebook on a silver platter.
Travel Under Any Star feels like a welcome home gift. Its locations are familiar – but not just Brisbane, now, Paris, too, and elsewhere. Armanno’s trademark ability to find tremendous, heartbreaking, knee-trembling passion in the everyday is a tonic. THAT Brisbane, THOSE stories, THIS passion – it’s all still there for the taking. It was just in the shadows, hiding behind a disillusioned sneer. Or perhaps that was me? “Travel under any star. You’ll see me wherever you are….”