NT Opposition leader Terry Mills, the man who if he plays his cards right may soon be gifted government by the hapless NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson, launched Nicolas Rothwell’s latest book, The Red Highway, in Darwin on Tuesday evening.

redhighwayThe Northern Myth couldn’t make it but understands that the hot topic of the evening was the righteous outrage of ex-NT Minister Marion Scrymgour and her attacks on her own party’s recent disastrous homelands policy – which as I wrote in Crikey earlier this week has recently been overseen by Nicolas’s partner, Territory Minister for Indigenous Affairs Alison Anderson.

Anderson, to whom The Red Highway is dedicated, was accompanied to the launch by her staunch ally and fellow Minister, Malandirri McCarthy.

In The Red Highway, Rothwell, according to his publisher’s blurb:

“…has unforgettable, even mystical encounters: with a priest, an explorer, a collector and a hunter. It becomes a quest – for knowledge and a sense of home – that builds to a stunning culmination.”

Robert Desaix says that:

“Rothwell’s calm wondering at what he sees and hears on his travels left me with a feeling of enchantment.”

Others, it seems, are less than enchanted by Rothwell’s view of the life lived on the highways and backroads of the NT.

In a review in the Australian Literary Review, to which Rothwell has been a reasonably frequent contributor, Peter Cochrane damns The Red Highway with the faintest of praise.

Cochrane’s review is an exemplar of its type – fair but unstintingly and cruelly accurate.

He says that Rothwell’s book may appeal to:

“Readers who respond to a romantic, secular spirituality, who like stories laced with dream or reverie or who thrill to the idea of ‘the strange, assertive harmony of chance’…”

Cochrane nails what he sees as a fundamental flaw in The Red Highway – that Rothwell, in his search for the “truth of things” only talks to himself, or to a cohort of people that seem very much like him:

“The conversation, at times, is enjoyable to read. But the cohort does give rise to a nagging irony: surely the search for the “truth of things” in the far north must go wider than this? If wisdom resides in sameness, what is the point of travel? Is plumbing the depths of one’s own cohort as revealing as transcending those depths? Why not cast a wide net, and reach into realms and ranks, black and white, high and low, where strangeness or otherness is the spark for self-knowledge?”

The nub of his concerns is that The Red Highway contains too much “implausible nonsense”:

“The end result for this reader was distraction. I found myself wondering about the protocols of memoir — a controversial issue in recent times — and questioning the authenticity of what I was reading. I looked for endnotes that explained how such masses of conversation might have been recorded or written up, but there aren’t any.”

“Concocting events and conversation for dramatic purposes is not on. Rothwell is too good a writer to be doing this, no matter how marginally, and certainly not in a book aiming for some sort of deep truth through the medium of conversation on the road.”

“Are the literary tricks — the polishing, the inventions, the self-mythologising — all now acceptable if they happen to lead to some deeper “mystical” truth, a truth so delicate and deep it cannot be interrogated?”

“Now, I’ve stopped at a few roadhouses in the far north over the years and I do wish that just once I might have fallen in with a crowd as eloquent, and as good at reading faces, as this.

I haven’t had the chance to read Nicolas’s latest book yet and confess that I’ve always had some difficulty with much of what he writes.

For mine a lot of his journalism is informed by a rather naive take on politics, an emotionless “flat-white right” version of the “latte left”. And to me his long-form work – his essays and books – often seem terribly overwritten and badly in need of an editor’s blue pencil.

That said, I admire much of what he has written about art and artists, particularly Australian Aboriginal art, and have found some of this work to be impeccably researched, written with a great interpretive eye and with an obvious love and appreciation for the artists and their works.

But – back to the long red roads of the north – if you want to see and hear another view of how life is lived in and around the great (and not-so-great) roadhouses of the NT you could do no worse than to go to the wonderful series of radio programs, called On The Roadhouse, prepared for the ABC by the NT’s own Chips Mackinolty and Andrew McMillan.

In 2002, Mackinolty and McMillan jumped in a hire car and drove the highways and backroads of the NT, on a mission to:

“…sample the steak sandwiches at every roadhouse with a 24 hour wayside inn licence in the Northern Territory. Oases of food, fuel, liquid refreshments, toilet facilities, varying standards of accommodation and ubiquitous oddities, the Territory’s roadhouses are well spread out.
Along the way, we explored aspects of life in these isolated outposts, interviewing staff and travelers and gathering the sounds of the road and the weird & wonderful creatures we encountered.”

And speaking of Andrew McMillan, Peter Cochrane is not alone in his concerns with Rothwell’s accounts of his interlocutor’s words and actions.

MacMillan was one of the lucky few to make it along to the launch of The Red Highway, where Country Liberal Party stalwarts Dave Tollner, John Elferink, Peter Murphy were in attendance, as was of course Terry “the man who may soon be King” Mills, who waxed lyrical about Rothwell’s observations of country and his ear for recording conversations.

Mills told Nicolas that “I’m sorry to say it’s not you saying it, it’s what other people have said. You have been listening generously.”

Listening to the angels perhaps?

And Andrew McMillan, who, among other things, is quoted in The Red Highway extolling the virtues of Darwin’s St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Cathedral as “a temple of art and beauty” reckons he’s never set foot in the joint.