When I mention that I once spent a year in the island state of Tasmania, people look at me with interest and ask me the same question. A question as patented as Coca-Cola and as reflexive as a burp. “Did you see the Tasmanian Devil?” they say. They are probably thinking of that Looney Tunes critter that talks in growls and grunts—not that poor diseased marsupial that is practically extinct.
In my early twenties, I took a ferry to Tasmania to make a stab at writing. I had been roaming Australia for several years, taking jobs as I found them, when I suddenly felt a need for some creative solitude. I was looking for a lonely retreat where I could draft some stories—a hermitage that would rival Thoreau’s hallowed cabin by a pond. I had no thought whatsoever of spotting the Tasmanian devil.
Eventually, I found my spot in the sequestered village of Bridport. It sits on the northern tip of Tasmania and is now a golfing haven, but at the time it was a rustic fishing port with few inhabitants. I rented a bungalow by the sea for thirty dollars a week, and I stocked up on tinned meat and pancake mix to make my meager funds last. As I sat by a fire in the bungalow and outlined my first stories, I could not resist the notion that I was one up on Thoreau. After all, the sound of the crashing breakers made Walden Pond seem dull.
Most days, I strolled an isolated beach with sand the color of snow. The beach was utterly barren—not a house stood anywhere, and I felt as though I had been transported to some prehistoric time. As I walked the shore, my first fictional characters bubbled into my brain—not fully-fleshed spirits but embryos that would develop over time. They were much like the early lifeforms that once crawled from the primal ooze.
Of course, I now have readers who say some of my characters are primitive still. After reading my first novel, The Siege, a woman just shook her head. “Your point-of-view character is immature,” she carped self-righteously. “He’s without a doubt the most cynical person that I have ever met.” “How could he be cynical?” I protested. “He was born in a place of stark beauty.” When I told her about my early days on the rugged Tasman coast, her face predictably brightened and she looked at me with awe. “Oh, what an adventure,” she exclaimed. “How brave you were to do that. Did you see the Tasmanian devil while you were living there?”
“I did not see the Tasmanian devil,” I said. “Nor was I looking for it.”
Her eyes glazed over. “My goodness,” she said. “What an opportunity you missed.”
The singularity of her interest was such that I volunteered nothing more. I did not mention that I interrupted my scribblings to work on a lobster boat. This was an actual adventure, an experience that tempered my soul, a thrill far greater than whatever rush a marsupial might provide.
The boat, a tiny fishing craft with a battered, rotting hull, swayed back and forth like a pendulum with every roll of the sea. “Point the prow at the waves,” my skipper called out at those times that I took the wheel. “If them buggers hit us side-on, we’re gonna capsize for sure.” It was perhaps to our good fortune that the hull leaked constantly; the seawater sloshing about in the hold gave some ballast to the boat. But the snarl of the combers, the groans of the hull, and the wanton peppery wind convinced me that I had braved elements I was not equipped to survive.
On one occasion, I lost my footing and toppled into the sea. I was clutching a thirty- pound lobster pot, which I was about to heave over the gunwale, when a whitecap rocked the boat so hard that I staggered like a drunk. So swift was my loss of balance, so sudden the drop of the deck, that I was still hanging onto the heavy pot when I plunged into the brine. Strangely, I did not panic as I bobbed among the swells; I instead felt the sort of solace that a child in a cradle might feel. It was only after my skipper had tossed me a rope and hauled me back onto the deck that my teeth began to hammer so hard I thought they were going to break. But I was feeling the chill of deliverance, not the pull of a watery grave, as though I had somehow been snatched from a womb and tossed into a cold empty world. Weeks later, after we harbored in Bridport, I knew that the sea owned me still. Spoiled by the rise and fall of the waves, I was unable to walk on land.
It is hard to describe the intimacy of almost drowning at sea, but decades later, at a family reunion, I made a feeble attempt. After telling a distant cousin about my dip off the Tasman coast, I was greeted with a callow gaze and again that knee-jerk question. “Cool,” he replied, “but what I wanna know is if you saw the Tasmanian devil.”
“I wasn’t looking for it,” I snapped. “I was on a lobster boat.”
Thinking back on my cousin’s query, I should have kept my temper. I should have known by then that high adventures are isolate affairs. This solitude applies no less to excursions of the mind: the seclusion I felt in my bungalow where I devoured dozens of books. But, although I lived like a hermit, I had the best of company: Hemingway, Faulkner, and Beckett became like personal friends to me. It was only the shouts of some women who worked in a local cannery that prevented me from finding an entire port within myself. I heard their siren voices one day while taking one of my strolls; they had spotted me during their lunch break and their summons rang in my ears. “Over here, luvy!” “I want some of you!” “Come see me anytime!” These brassy solicitations were enough to break the spell of great authors, and I decided to forgo my hermitage to gather some low-hanging fruit.
That night, I went to the local pub where I spotted one of them: a large-bosomed woman with tattooed forearms and thick disheveled hair. She was sitting alone at one of the tables, nursing a pitcher of beer, and she looked in my direction with frank, disarming eyes.
I approached her and bowed like a courtier. “Ma’am,” I said in a honeyed voice, “would you spare this poor orphan a chat?”
She studied me with furrowed brows, unsure what to make of me. “How come you talk like a poof?” she said finally.
“I’m learning to be a writer.”
She shrugged and belched like a cannon. “I think you’re a Happy Jack, luv. That’s a bloke who takes advantage of sheilas then goes on his merry way.”
Despite her misgivings, she accompanied me back to my bungalow. “You’re a one-night stand, luvy,” she muttered as she undressed by firelight. “I just wish I wasn’t enough of a trollop to know that about you for sure.”
We made love with an intensity that rivaled the toss of the sea. And the following morning she said, “That was fun, but a hubby is what I need.”
“I could fix you some pancakes,” I offered.
She laughed and walked out the door. A few days later, I ran into her inside the local store. “I’m an easy fuck, luvy,” she told me. “But that’s as far as it goes. I’m not easy enough to give my heart to a bloody Happy Jack.”
Was she a disposable pleasure to me? I think all women were in those days. But I had no wish to dispose of her quite so quickly as that. Although I was not the marrying sort, she had claimed me like the sea. Fifty years later, she still remains my favorite fantasy.
Recently, while swapping stories with a stranger in a bar, I remembered the moan of the Tasman wind and could not help mentioning her. I said, “I gotta tell you about this woman I had in Tasmania.”
Indifferent to my nostalgia, the stranger cut me off. “Tasmania,” he said. “Hey, did you see the Tasmanian devil there?”
“I did not see the Tasmanian devil,” I said. “I think it snuck up a tree.”
Once again, I had been reminded that adventures are solitary affairs—that the year I had spent in Tasmania was not tame enough to be shared. So I no longer talk of Tasmania and the tempest it planted in me. And, wherever that critter is hiding, I am happy to let it be.