Matt Dray is a former sanitation worker whose Dougal the Garbage Dump Bear was originally published in 2004 in Australia. Crikey, what do picture books even look like in Australia, I wonder? Not fussy, if Dougal is representative. It may take a few minutes to determine those coffee stains weren’t actually left by previous readers, still by then it hopefully wouldn’t matter. This book consists mostly of Polaroid snapshots, which do not hint at some larger, immaculate aesthetic. Oh, and stray M&M’s, and dead mosquitoes, and muffin crumbs, and whatever else just happened to spill into the binder during lunch breaks.
Very simply, this is the story of a toy left out in the rain during a tea party by a girl in a hurry to rescue the more pedigreed members of her collection. We do not ever glimpse the party’s hostess, but you are free to cut and paste an image of that whiny prima donna from Pinkalicious behind the scenes. Dougal doesn’t miss her. But he doesn’t like the bin where he is subsequently discarded – too smelly – or the uncertain starting and stopping of the garbage truck, or the roaring, scary looking machine – henceforth known as the dragon – which almost consumes him at the dump.
Turns out however there are some quietly big-hearted blokes behind the levers, who set him up on a bench on a hill where he can observe their Sisyphean labors, and return him to the cab of the “dragon” every night before closing. Pretty soon Dougal meets up with a bee who looks more like an alien hedgehog to tell the truth, and who is given to occasionally grumping – “bloomin’ heat”, “bloomin’ rain,” “bloomin’ big boss” – though both are delighted to be visited on their bench by the (artfully cropped) workers for iced coffee and vegemite sandwiches, and several times also accompany the men after work to a pool hall.
“And always the next day, they would both feel very sick from drinking too many ginger beers, and have to sleep it off in the air-conditioned dragon.
“‘Never again,’ Bumble would say.
“‘I need an iced coffee.’”
Here I would like to take a moment to congratulate all of the parents who worry about what kind of a message this sends, on the successful completion of their underground bunkers. It’s tough out here in the wild, but I guess if a couple of gangstas like Dougal and Bumble can survive the cycle of addiction, there is hope for us all.
When they do manage to scrape themselves off of the floor, it’s to rescue that dragon, who ends up repaying their kindness by shoveling more carefully so that heaps of other toys – including elephants and clowns, two toucans, a Scottish moose and a shaggy thing with one eye that nobody can figure out – should also be spared the bottom of a landfill. That all of these discards were in real life recovered from the garbage dump where Dray was once an employee invests this easygoing narrative with surprising poignancy. Truly, the scenes of these button-eyed victims of circumstance resettled by the edge of a suitably grubby little pond is enough to make you wonder about the wisdom of ever animating stuffed toys with anything fuller than our imaginations. They’re happy, and no wisecracks or digital mugging could better make the case. Now witness their believably horror-struck expressions as viewed between the imperious pant-legs of that bloomin’ big boss from the city. See them anxiously crowded into the back of a pick-up, then lastly repatriated to a modest little bungalow on the beach. See the shaggy thing surfing. Imagine the fun that Dray had setting it up. And yet if none of this strikes you as sufficiently ambitious, you could go looking instead through some pretty epic spaces and still not arrive at any surer meaning in the end:
“... that sometimes bad things happen so that good things can happen.
“You just had to make the best of it.”