Down at the Dump by Patrick White, 1964

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by Patrick White, 1964

The story "Down at the Dump" (included in The Burnt Ones, 1964) revisits and successfully reworks a theme that Australian writer Patrick White explored repeatedly during his half-century career as creator of novels, plays, short fiction, poems, and finally political polemic. This theme provided the focus and title for his second novel, The Living and the Dead (1941), but can be seen to operate throughout his oeuvre. It is that of a choice of allegiances. White often categorizes his characters in terms of their brave affirmation of life and its cyclic processes or their retreat toward death and its allies: sterility, rigidity, moral prudery, fear of growth and change, the worship of convention, and the abhorrence of nature. Ironically, of course, death triumphs over those who enlist under its banner. Only by aligning oneself with life can death be understood and encompassed within a wider scheme.

In this story the battle lines between opposing camps are drawn early. Residing in houses that face each other across a road in White's fictional Sydney suburb of Sarsaparilla are two families, the Whalleys and the Hogbens. Middle-aged, sagging, and down at the heels, the Whalleys resell junk and live in chaos. But their profession is made emblematic of their central function in the story: to proclaim and assist the process of resurrection, by means of which life invades and conquers death. Just as their junk dealership gives a new life of usefulness to discarded objects, the Whalleys' abiding love and recurring lust for each other continually renew their relationship. Early in the story White says of them: "Their faces were lit by the certainty of life."

The Hogbens, however, are certain only of death. The immediate occasion for this knowledge is the death of Mrs. Myrtle Hogben's sister Daise, whose burial is to take place that day. But White associates the Hogbens with death in many other ways as well, especially with Myrtle, who is thin, dry, withered, and terrified of her own mortality. She is also ferociously attached to the perishable, that is, to status and possessions, a quality White gives to only his most despicable characters. Most telling as a sign of her alliance with death is her small-minded resentment of her sister's large, gracious, and generous life.

Two young emissaries from these warring factions—the teenagers Meg Hogben and "Lum" (William) Whalley—are brought together over the body of Daise Morrow, a woman related by blood to the Hogbens but by temperament to the Whalleys. Daise recycles people as the Whalleys do trash. She has reignited the fires of life and love in Jack Cunningham, the long-suffering husband of an invalid wife, and in an old derelict named Ossie Coogan, whom she finds lying amidst horse manure and takes home in the wheelbarrow she had intended to use for the fertilizer. The linkage of feces and the catarrhal old man is typical of White in its suggestion that even repugnant manifestations of life are valuable and can be redeemed. Daise plays the role of redeemer here: manuring her garden into luxuriant growth and offering Ossie a rejuvenating love which is at once maternal, spiritual, and sexual. Ossie is restored by Daise's simple belief in the necessity of loving "what we are given to love."

At Daise's funeral Meg and Lum discover that they have been given each other to love. They meet and enjoy their first, tentative kisses after Meg has wandered away from her aunt's interment and Lum from his parents' pursuit of the salvageable in the dump that abuts the cemetery. White's point in establishing this unlikely juxtaposition seems to be that both dump and graveyard are sites of potential resurrection. As the story progresses Daise Morrow and the two young people will all undergo resurrections of sorts.

Meg Hogben is clearly identified as Daise's spiritual heir and is thus possessed of her aunt's transformative imagination. She and Daise can both reshape life as poetry, seeing carnations as "frozen fireworks" melting into dizzying motion in the early morning sun. Meg also projects Lum Whalley into his own future, one in which the unpretentious profession of truck driving becomes his contribution to poetry. In this passage Meg imagines herself as Lum's wife, riding with him on a night run in his truck:

She saw it. She saw the people standing at their doors, frozen in the blocks of yellow light. The rushing of the night made the figures for ever still. All around she could feel the furry darkness, as the semi-trailer roared and bucked, its skeleton of coloured lights. While in the cabin, in which they sat, all was stability and order. If she glanced sideways she could see how his taffy hair shone when raked by the bursts of electric light. They had brought cases with tooth-brushes, combs, one or two things—the pad on which she would write the poem somewhere when they stopped in the smell of sunlight dust ants. But his hands had acquired such mastery over the wheel, it appeared this might never happen. Nor did she care.

The heroic stature that Meg accords Lum here remakes him as a worthy partner, just as Daise's tenderness transfigured Ossie.

The engine driving all these metamorphoses is love, which is the force a resurrected Daise celebrates in the speech White imagines she might have given to those gathered around her grave. The text of her sermon is life everlasting:

Truly, we needn't experience tortures, unless we build chambers in our minds to house instruments of hatred in. Don't you know, my darling creatures, that death isn't death, unless it's the death of love? Love should be the greatest explosion it is reasonable to expect. Which sends us whirling, spinning, creating millions of other worlds. Never destroying.

White's version of immortality locates it securely within this life, where it can be as fertile and procreative as other forms of love. That Meg and Lum will achieve these several kinds of love is suggested by the story's closing paragraph, in which Meg senses a "warm core of certainty," which recalls the Whalleys' faces "lit by the certainty of life," and which White associates with nature's persistent resurrections.

This paean to life's victories over death is placed last in a 1964 collection of White's short fiction called The Burnt Ones. The story strikes one of the few affirmative notes in a volume peopled, for the most part, by those who are morally and/or spiritually damaged, those whose capacity for engagement with life has been scorched by events. Meg and Lum are clearly of a different ilk. They are among the privileged few in White's work who search for and even sometimes find what he has called "the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make [life] bearable…." In "Down at the Dump" Meg and Lum begin to explore one of life's deepest mysteries. While the parson reminds the mourners that "in the midst of life we are in death," the boy and girl learn that the reverse is equally true. Life penetrates death as well. Garbage nurtures seeds, and abandoned junk is swathed in living vines. This knowledge of the interdependence of life and death comes only to the illuminati in White's fiction. The fact that he ends his volume with a story of initiation into such awareness indicates that the fires that singe so many of "the burnt ones" can also light up the darkness.

—Carolyn Bliss

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Down at the Dump by Patrick White, 1964

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