Book Review : No Excuses: Writing Is the Best Revenge : Minimum of Two by Tim Winton (Atheneum: $14.95; 154 pages)

Probably the favorite quote of failed writers all over the world is that scathing remark once made by Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Wives and children have killed more artists than the cholera!”

It’s true, daily life can be pretty hard on any writer. It’s also true that there’s no better excuse on Earth for not writing on any given day than a sick spouse and/or a screeching kid. Familial economics also provide a perfect excuse for not sitting down to write: “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!,” delivered with an ironic shrug, a self-depreciating smile, can explain away a plethora of wasted days, blank pages and that heavy-duty sulking the failed writer so often excels in.

But the real writer takes a look at where he is, wherever he is, and makes stories about it. Thus, Tim Winton, novelist pushing 30, settling down, takes a look at that configuration and writes about it. Novelists, for instance, are almost always poor. Tim Winton’s hero, Jerra Nilsam, an ex-rock musician, is poor--so poor that when Rachel, his put-upon wife, has an almost-fatal asthma attack, they have trouble getting her into a hospital. Nilsam, who turns up in about two-thirds of these stories, is a failed artist; his band has fallen apart.


His wife shows both sides of the “failed artist’s spouse” coin: At first she’s ill and quarrelsome. Then, almost harder to take, she gets better, goes back to school and out to work. In the economic dynamic of things, Jerra must stay home and take care of Sam, the kid--who’s cute but needs food and clean diapers and wakes up in the night.

When you’re hitting 30, you either get married (and then you have a certain kind of life), or you don’t. Nilsam has chosen marriage. There’s a clamped-down resignation to it, a dogged sense of sticking to the dailiness of things that suffuses these “married” stories: “Everything was changed,” Nilsam thinks in “Forest Winter.” “How long had it been since they were happy? The music was gone, the money. And Rachel, what had happened to her? Having the baby had muted her. The forceful, funny girl he had married had suddenly become placid, listless, sickly, as though she’d had the life torn from her as well as the child. . . .”

And in “Gravity,” Nilsam commits the venial sins of a feckless husband, sulking through a party, making his wife cry, offending a guest: “You’re 30 years old, he told himself; be adult enough to go and smooth things over. He got himself a glass of Semillon. He took a few serious breaths. And he stayed where he was.”

On that party night, Nilsam feels wretched because it’s the anniversary of his father’s death and no one else remembers. But why should they? Family is arbitrary and only important to those who make it so. In “Nilsam’s Friend,” the friend of the title comes back from a visit to Athens: “Nilsam’s friend could not decide whether or not to marry. He embarked upon trips to ‘get his head together’ but a decision was never forthcoming.” The friend enthuses about “the retsina, the tavernas, the light, the color of the ocean.” The housebound husband suggests that “ ‘The light, the sea, the . . . well, it’s the same as here.’ ” Later, when his friend is gone, Nilsam sits alone in his back yard: “He watched his son climb the steps with fierce concentration as he waited for his wife to get home from work, and he caught himself wondering what it was like to see the same creamy light, the same blue eye of the ocean, the same sky-colors somewhere else.” But that’s something he’ll never know--because he’s chosen wife and child. The last story here, a god-awful childbirth humdinger, is a violent validation of domestic, “daily,” material as the basis for a serious writing career.

Other stories here are notable: “Minimum of Two” is about the way a rape destroys a family. And there’s “Laps,” which readers of Winton’s earlier whaling novel, “Shallows,” will love for its glimpse of all those characters eight years later. But the Nilsam tales are the ones that matter here. This is an Australian collection (western Australia at that) but the material here is universal. This should be an indispensable part of a young wife’s dowry, if she decides to marry a writer. Then, when Rocco won’t change the kid, or stares out the window into the rain, or opens his mouth to opine, “Wives and children, as the old Russian master used to say, have killed more artists than the . . . ,” she can bean him lovingly on the head with this slender volume and remind him to put his writing where his mouth is.