The Real Ryan O’Neill, by Dave Drayton

Dave Drayton has not been heard from since January 2017. Police are appealing for anyone who knows his whereabouts to come forward.

This piece appears in Issue Eighteen of Tincture Journal along with a poem by Dave Drayton and much more. Please support our work by buying a copy.

Reading a review of Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers published in The Saturday Paper, I felt like a bobble-headed Jesus giving thumbs up from the dash of an old bomb with shot suspension, nodding vigorously in concurrence: here was a great, (un)ashamedly Australian metafictional satire; a page turner in the sense that each of its vignettes rollick along at a compelling speed, but also because its intricate web of self-referentialism will have you thumbing back-and-forth through pages, dog-earing, marking margins, triple-checking half-made connections, hanging red twine from thumb-tacks holding bumf to walls…

So wholeheartedly and emphatically was I agreeing with this reviewer—an anonymous scribe known only by the initials JD—that on first reading I simply skimmed their closing statement: “If Ryan O’Neill didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.”

However before long I began to suspect that what on the surface appeared to be a tongue-in-cheek attempt to compliment the author in a manner that acknowledged his own methods was in fact something so much more, a key to understanding the increasingly slippery separation of fact from fiction.

In an attempt to confirm my suspicions I tracked down the researchers at the University of Sydney behind a 2009 study to determine the true identity of the author responsible for the corpus of poetry attributed to Donald Chapman—professor Ron I. Lanely and his research assistant Carol Gillerd (whose doctoral accreditation had been contingent on the success of the project). Chapman and Gillerd’s research comprised a series of linguistic analyses, the data culled from these potentially capable of identifying the common hand behind literary works variously attributed to or claimed by Donald Chapman, Les Mitchell, Tom Stirling, Bruno Claypool, and an author known only as X.

When the results proved inconclusive Lanely resigned before having to suffer professionally too publicly. His own harshest critic, following a few months camped out in the Blue Mountains—a sabbatical some mistakenly took to be a critical/creative convalescence—he committed suicide in early 2010. Police found the body slumped against an eldritch gum, a few hundred metres from a popular bushwalking path; Lanely had driven a cricket stump into his own temple, the white English Ash now red with blood and memory.

Gillerd, too, had distanced herself from the scandal, albeit by less extreme actions. She’d burnt all her research notes and drafts of the doctoral thesis, then tossed her laptop and all the external hard-drives and thumb-sized USBs into the communal pool of her parents’ retirement village in Nambucca Heads. The next day she started the arduous process of re-enrolment, eventually completing her masters in Information and Library Services via correspondence; after her funding was cut and she paid to replace the drowned electronics, she had moved into a seemingly forgotten sauna tucked behind the shed where the pool chemicals were kept.

I hadn’t had to travel to the north coast of New South Wales to track her down, however. Upon graduating Gillerd had returned to Sydney, finding work as a librarian at Petersham Public School in the city’s inner western suburbs. I too was working at the school, in the less illustrious position of weekend cleaner, in order to supplement the meagre income made from reviewing books.

Although she was at first reticent to discuss anything to do with Sydney Uni, Lanely or Chapman, I eventually earned her trust through an only partially feigned affection for the short fiction of Adelaide Hegarty. By then it was not uncommon for us to share lunch on Saturday afternoons in the library, reading pages from Hegarty’s Mallarmé’s Pupil aloud to one another.

For a state school under Gonski, Petersham Public possessed remarkably preserved, meticulously archived and extensive records. In a room at the back of the library, lacking in technology but loaded with files, one can find a lightly yellowing ledger detailing every student to whom a copy of Derrick Mound’s Spit The Camel has been loaned since 1903. Elsewhere among the filing cabinets and boxes are all manner of acrostics, finger paintings, book reports, forged sick notes, innumerable Dollarmites ledgers, athletic carnival participation certificates, and a century’s worth of report cards (among them one for a ten-year-old Ern Malley—often absent… shows a promising precociousness with poetry… concerningly talented with regards to fraudulence, falsification, forgery and fabrication… rarely present…). It was to this second, smaller and more esoteric library that we would retire after lunch to lazily look through the reams of history. It was here that Carol finally opened up to me about Chapman, Lanely, their research and regrets, and her destruction of its remnants.

On the afternoon in question Carol retrieved a thick tome from the handleless bottom drawer of a towering filing cabinet, jimmying it open with a precise kick of the heel that set rollers clunking in motion. She set the book down before me—clothbound, red, aged, the title in a fading gold Cyrillicised font: Soviet Encyclopaedia. I didn’t understand, had been absent-mindedly thumbing through some reports on gold panning written by class 2P in 1970-something. She rapped her knuckles on the hardcover and said page 260. It had been bookmarked by a small sheet of paper detailing the mean blood volume of red blood cells; near the bottom of the right page was an entry encased in a lead circle:

McVeigh, Francis X. Writer and publisher of pro-Soviet literature in Australia. Established Steelman Press in July 1933.

“People have bandied about plenty of theories for who’s behind Chapman over the years—we checked them all, and they all turned up negative. Ron had a theory, but for years we didn’t have the computing power necessary to churn through such multitudinous output in search of our proof. The ten-million-word, five year publishing plan put in place by Steelman Press.”

Could there have been a mistake?

“There was no mistake, we had the best minds developing the necessary programs to run these analyses—more than one of the team was involved in the hack of the most recent census. And why not some poetry amongst all that Soviet pulp?”

So why not publish your findings?

“It wasn’t safe. Ron started to receive threats—anonymous emails, late night phone calls, vans outside his house and trailing the buses he took to and from the university. At first he didn’t tell me, didn’t wanted to scare me, but as weeks went by and his excuses for not yet publishing our research ran dry he came clean, but not before turning on the fan, a vacuum cleaner, and the radio. I didn’t believe him at first, and then Killer, my blue Burmese, was catnapped. The next week I was in Nambucca heads.”

There were hundreds more questions to ask, but Carol was weary with memory, incapable of continuing that afternoon. She placed the Soviet Encyclopaedia on my lap and took her leave, promising to tell me more the following Saturday.

Carol didn’t show on Saturday, and in Sunday’s paper Petersham Public were advertising for a new school librarian. I sent through an EOI and received the automated reply acknowledging my submission. Moments later a second email arrived. Ridden with Wingdings, I at first thought it to be spam. But at the bottom beneath the footer requesting that I consider the environment before printing this communiqué I spotted the following message:

I know what you want, but all the developers we collaborated with fled the country after the census, they’re working for Wikileaks, off the books for Facebook, unreachable. What does it matter anyway? We both know what the data will show, who’s behind ‘Ryan’. Why do you think there’s all this effort to point out the Novocastrian aspects of O’Neill’s supposed life? Why is he always talking about Newcastle on Twitter? Newcastle is the Steel City!

What good is evidence when you’re dead?