What we can learn from The Last Free Man in the midst of a pandemic

It has been a little while since I have sat myself down to write one of these reviews. With all the disruptions posed by the pandemic, it has been tricky to find the time to dedicate towards both reading and writing. As I have finally settled down into a new routine, it appears to be a perfectly timed coincidence in which the Queanbeyan Review has been contacted by an author for the first time asking if we would be interested in reviewing their work. Lewis Woolston’s collection of short stories, entitled The Last Free Man and Other Stories, also contains some very poignant ideas for consideration during the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. It might seem like an odd connection to make – the short stories are focused on the comings and goings of drifters in country Australia and around Alice Springs, not on global events or widespread crises. But the elements of the stories related to freedom and happiness are incredibly pertinent to day-to-day life in these circumstances. For many of us living in self-isolation, the experience has been one of incredible loneliness, which is dramatically different to the potential for isolation to be freeing and satisfying as presented by Woolston in many of his works. It seems that isolation itself does not bring freedom, but is rather a short-cut to liberation provided by living in an environment free of the pressures applied by the social and institutional systems of city life. When we are trapped within these systems, though, we must take freedom into our own hands by pushing back against these pressures and finding time to nurture our personal wellbeing.

The central concept explored by Woolston’s work is the liberating nature of living in the country. His collection opens with The Last Free Man, a story in which the main character recounts his experiences with Jimmy Healy, a drifter who lives his life on the Nullarbor working at various sheep stations, on the railway line, or at several mines over his lifetime. He has taken up this way of life after returning from the war in Vietnam, following which he left his fiancée and abandoned his suburban life to move to the country with his last few possessions packed away in his ute. The narrator recounts how Jimmy took him out to the site of “the loneliest grave in Australia, if not the world” in the middle of the Nullarbor. The grave is marked with the name Billy Langley, but nobody truly remembers who he was, other than the rumour that it was likely a snake bite that killed him and that he probably worked at a sheep station or as a rabbit trapper. The grave itself is situated in a completely barren landscape with “too much emptiness for the average suburban mind to handle.” The ground is “so flat you could probably put a spirit level on it, there are no trees visible, no buildings, just a great emptiness that sends shivers through your soul.” The narrator is a little shaken by the agoraphobia provided by this final resting place, but for many of the other bushies the idea of being buried in a similar manner has a certain charm. Nobody may really remember who Billy Langley was, but he now rests in a world absent of social, financial, and political systems where a set of external expectations would impart their pressures and unhappiness onto him. Billy Langley is mostly forgotten, but he is free.

The Madura Roadhouse, where the narrator first met Jimmy Healy

All of the characters in Woolston’s collection romanticise the emptiness and solitude of the country. The protagonists are typically loners, drifters, are absent of big aspirations, and are rather quiet. To these people, city life is understood to be transient and full of numerous fleeting opportunities that inevitably fizzle out into nothingness. Jimmy Healy explains that his experiences in Vietnam woke him up to the fact that unhappiness was a baseline for ordinary human life. Most people are “’constantly worried about how they’re going to pay the bills, frightened of losing their jobs, arguing with the missus and all that shit. They will live unhappy and die unhappy…’” and he suggests that “’merely escaping the crushing drudgery and misery that everyone else is in is a huge achievement.’” At the end of the story, Jimmy commits suicide as his last act of freedom before his terminal illness could cause him to wither away and wrest away his sense of control.

In the story Driftwood, people who live in the city are described as being already dead, “they just hadn’t stopped walking around and going to work yet.” The focus of the story The Failure is on a former member of the fictitious, moderately successful band called Waratah Farm, but nobody remembers who he is anymore so he continues to unhappily drift knowing that his life has already peaked. The narrator of The Family Farm takes note of a small farm, called the Whitby Farm, which appears to be suspended in time along with many of the surrounding townships. He is envious of the people who live there with their simple lives and strong roots, compared to the transience, chaos, and unhappiness of his own life. Ambition and participation in the complicated constructs imposed by the city all have a corrosive effect on characters within the stories, and it is the freedom offered by an isolated life in the country that has the potential to lead them towards happiness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed restrictions and caused isolation for people at a global scale. It is not an inherently freeing form of isolation though, unlike that which is romanticised by the bushies in The Last Free Man. I think people have lost sight of what the nature of freedom truly is, though, and why it is desirable. We look to the United States and see protests against the mandated use of face masks, with many citing that their rights are being violated by these restrictions. Lockdown laws are viewed as tyrannical and people are directly disobeying these rules in an attempt to demonstrate control over their lives. Yet, the consequences of these behaviours has a detrimental impact upon the community and safety of others. So, is it really freedom if your decisions impede upon the rights of other people? Perhaps not, and Woolston appears to share a similar sentiment in The Last Madura Brumby, a follow-up story to The Last Free Man. Jimmy and the narrator go looking for the last wild Brumby of the Nullarbor. When they find her, they realise that she is a sorry sight and appears to be just about ready to die. The narrator suggests that it would be an act of kindness for them to kill her. Jimmy responds with venom and makes the threat “’You shoot her and I’ll shoot you.’” We know that Jimmy ends up committing suicide later in life, though. So, the sentiment is clear: you have the freedom to go about your own life how you please, but once your choices impact the lives of others you lose that right to freedom. Refusing to wear a mask in circumstances where you would put other peoples’ lives in danger is not a right and it is not the purpose of freedom.

Australian Brumbies

The change in my lifestyle imposed by the pandemic was initially jarring and unpleasant too. The crisis has led to me experiencing increased isolation and unhappiness. During the semester, the switch to remote learning at university caused an increase in workload and pressure; there was a greater demand on my time and energy whilst continued my work as a retail assistant; and I was restricted in my ability to see my friends, family, and partner. Isolation was lonely, but not in the same way in which the vast emptiness of the Nullarbor is lonely. It was lonely in a hopeless and restricted kind of sense. Knowing that the people I cared about were just a short drive away, but understanding that it was not possible for me to see them for many months was absolutely heartbreaking. The increase in commitments in my workplace and studies then imposed further restrictions on my personal time and the energy I had to commit to activities that could improve my wellbeing during this period. The freedom offered by isolation in the country was not reflected in my experiences of isolation in the city.

It seems to me that life is a battle against pressures imposed by the systems of the outside world. Out in the country, the influence of these systems is relatively limited. The people in Woolston’s stories are not worried about paying their bills, losing their jobs, earning good grades, or managing a complicated network of relationships. This is because the social and institutional systems that are prevalent in big cities apply almost no pressure on them in their everyday lives. When these characters move to the city, they experience how corrosive this pressure can be and they crumble into unhappiness. I am reminded of the corrosive nature of big business and money upon the artists in William Gaddis’s J R as I read these stories and reflect upon my own experiences of self-isolation.

I do not think that the solution is to pack up and move to the country, though. I derive a great deal of value from my interconnected life in the city. What I have learnt, however, is that there is a potential for these value-adding systems to overwhelm the individual and crush them if they are given the opportunity. Freedom is not necessarily a decision between living in the country or living in the city. Rather, it is a decision to push back against these systems when they become too much and to tell them “No!” This is not the same as refusing to wear a face mask in public when it could put other people at risk. Rather, I learned that it was okay to say “no” to an extra shift at work if I needed a day to take care of myself, and it was okay to say “no” to contributing more towards a group assignment once I had completed my fair share. Freedom comes from taking time to yourself. Freedom is enjoying a cup of coffee in the garden while watching the magpies peck at the grass. Freedom is taking a stroll in the nature reserve near your house. Freedom is painting a picture just for the simple pleasure of painting that picture. To experience these liberating activities, you must be prepared to push back against the external systems that constantly demand your time and energy.

For those of you still struggling with the added pressure imposed by life in the pandemic, I ask that you hang in there and make sure you find some time for yourself. Life is transient. You cannot make more time just appear out of thin air. If you let yourself get swept off your feet, then you will find it gone in the blink of an eye. Try to seize the opportunity to say “no” when these external systems encroach upon your personal time. Maybe take the chance to read a good book. Or perhaps a short story. Feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your cheeks. Enjoy the freedom.

If you are interested in reading The Last Free Man and Other Stories by Lewis Woolston, please follow the link below. Be sure to also ask your local bookstore if you would like to purchase the collection. We would like to thank Woolston for sending us a copy of his work for review.

The Last Free Man and Other Stories

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