Monday, November 17, 2014

Not missing Johnno

Seeing Brisbane's been in the news, it seems an appropriate time to note that I finished reading David Malouf's "Johnno" on the weekend, which many regard as the quintessential literary novel about my home town.

I can see why people like the book's atmospheric description of Brisbane of the 40's and 50's. (Actually, it perhaps ends in the early to mid 60's - it's not made clear.)   It certainly paints a picture of a city that has quite a bit of "Southern Gothic" about it, which is not exactly how I remember it as a child.  But then again, the city did take a long time to start developing strongly - I remember sewerage  being installed at home in about '65, and we were only about 9 km or so from the the GPO.   So perhaps his description is accurate, just that I never experienced it.

One small point I did note with particular interest was Malouf's description of Brisbane's icy, cutting winter winds.   In fact, I am pretty sure that global warming has taken care of that, as I do remember  August winds as a child being much colder than I have experienced in the last decade or two.

But as for the story more broadly, I have to say I was very underwhelmed.   The main problem is that I think the book fails completely to explain why Dante (the semi-fictional Malouf) continues into adulthood to be bothered sharing time with Johnno.   I mean, the titular character is really painted as quite a dangerous, permanently immature loon, without any particular redeeming features that I could detect.  Dante is a thoughtful loner, and while you can understand why as a child he might be attracted to Johnno's inordinate self confidence, it really doesn't wash when they become adults and Johnno's thoughts and behaviour become more boorish and self destructive.   [Spoilers ahead] The ultimate revelation  (which I knew was coming, thanks to a review of the book)  of his unresolved feelings towards Dante gives a partial psychological explanation of some of the earlier episodes in the book, and explains why Johnno kept wanting Dante to see him, but it does nothing to explain why Dante would indulge him.   There seems to be no sense of fun for Dante in anything they do together.

According to Wikipedia, Malouf really doesn't like it when people call it a "gay" novel, and I can understand why, as it handles ambiguity of the narrator's sexuality in a pretty mature, matter of fact way that appeals a lot more than the intense identity politics of sexuality that has developed since the novel was written in the mid 70's.   Yet there is little doubt that Johnno's character shows elements of game playing (with women and prostitutes especially) which is hard to see other than as arising from internal conflict about sexuality.   To the extent that it seems to suggest that Johnno not facing up to his true desires is what drove him nuts, yes, it is a "gay" novel.   Sorry, David.

The book also reminded me a bit uncomfortably of "My Brother Jack", a vastly overrated Australian novel about which I can remember very little, except for one evocative passage near the beginning, and the fact that it also dealt with an outgoing character who is ultimately revealed as not the success he thinks he is.    

I can't say I have ever read an Australian novel that I have considered a complete success.  But then again, it's not that I've gone looking very hard.   I've only tried one Tim Winton and was unimpressed.   I think I started something by Peter Carey once - I can't remember what now.   As with Australian film, I just don't find our home grown material terribly interesting or convincing.

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