Reviewed by Rhys Tate.
A few months ago, as an ex-truckie and sometime poet, I was invited to submit some lines to Sydney outfit Red Room and their collection of trucker poetry, a pairing even I find incongruous. My poem was titled ‘There’s nothing romantic about driving a truck’ and Truckers by Mary Richardson might well be the photojournalistic twin to that anti-sentiment.
The trouble is that people who don’t drive trucks do sentimentalise an occupation that invariably combines consistent pressure with soul-destroying repetition. Heading from Melbourne to Sydney return three times a week (many do that and more besides) with a manifest that has your trip plotted to the nearest fifteen minutes might sound okay, until you’re six hours north of Melbourne at two in the morning and can’t see fifty feet because of the fog. There’s no pulling over for a few hours or travelling at a sane speed for the conditions; even at 110 all the way, you might have fifteen minutes spare to make a delivery window in Sydney. Miss too many windows and it’s Centrelink time, baby.
Richardson and her photographers paint a bleaker picture of US truckers, who lack even Centrelink’s dubious safety net. She makes no bones that the focus of the book is the erosion of conditions for drivers and especially owner-operators. Gayle, a truck-stop bartender whose drove with her ex-husband before they were squeezed out by operating debts, puts it simply, ‘Back then it was a good living. Now it’s not.’
Over 128 pages, a cast of drivers and their support crew flit past like strangers on a busy street. Most get a photo and a couple of paragraphs, and then it’s on to the next and the next after that. There are divorces and cigarettes and far too many artful ‘unposed’ portraits of truckers in front of their rigs. Richardson is shooting for a mood of washed-out impermanence and, even though some of the writing is a touch self-conscious, she delivers on this front.
This transience does make Truckers more difficult to recommend. Our interaction with the truckers feels guarded, as if we were fresh hitchhikers they hadn’t quite made their minds up about yet. I wanted more depth to the vignetting, more relaxation and variety to the photography. Richardson has stripped the sentiment from the occupation, but in doing so she’s bleached out much of the colour and humour which counterpoint the terrible conditions. Most truckers, in similar to people who spend far too much time keeping their own company, are merrily half-mad. I wanted to spend three or four days crossing one of the world’s great continents with each one; as it is, Truckers made me feel more like an interloper with a clipboard, knocking on the windows of parked semis at a stop.
Rhys Tate studies writing at Deakin and has recently been published in Verandah 24, The Logbook Anthology and Victorian Writer. He once drove a truck with thirteen gears and a non-synchro gearbox (sample gear change: clutch in, shift into neutral, clutch out, get revs between 1,500 – 2,000 rpm, clutch in, shift into new gear, clutch out, rinse and repeat-peat-peat-peat). He’s bogged a truck in Spotswood, ‘widened’ a front gate in Altona and backed into a tree in Malvern. His writing also tends towards minor calamity.