- Bluebird, by Malcolm Knox. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.
The ancients yearned for the coming of the messiah. Australian readers, since about the 1930s, yearned for the coming of the Great Australian Novel. Is this it? Has the GAN, at last arrived? The cover, as gorgeously Australian as can be imagined, suggests it might be.
The ingredients are all there. Set in a beach suburb of Bluebird, with the surf crashing around the readers ears, climaxing (almost) in a game of cricket, every male character (almost) with a nickname, "Dog", "Firie Sam", a wife who runs off with her bloke's best mate, oldies as mad and as shrivelled as can be, driven largely to live on to spite their kids.
Larger than life and riotously amusing to begin with, as carefree as the old Australian beach summer, a darkness comes into the novel and takes centre stage.
This is a story about male inadequacy and confusion, the failure to confront what needs to be done, and more, what needs to be said.
The death of a brother, many years ago, intrudes upon the story at first and then it takes over the story with the rot and the trauma it caused.
Ultimately, Malcolm Knox serves us a bleak picture of the Australian dream. Although, as the GAN would require, there is a happy ending of sorts.
The great Aussie dream home, at least as once was, perches precariously on the top of a cliff and is disintegrating before the occupants' eyes.
The occupants are, principally, a father, his son, their estranged wife and mother and a drug-addled uncle. They are joined nightly by mates and hangers-on, for cards, a jigsaw puzzle, drinking and circular talk about very little at all.
The blokes are all pretty useless, living in the past of their surfing glories, though most still take the board out most days. Few of them work, or have much money, several have returned to live with a widowed mother or disgruntled father. Danger and horror lurks in these blokes lives, and ruin, possibly.
Gordon Grimes, inevitably "Gordo", the character around whom the plot works, is a lovely bloke, whom everybody loves but pities. His father Ron is in a well-run, comfortable nursing home which he regards as his prison cell, from which he attempts constant escape. The scene, on a main road, where Gordo wrestles with Ron and his walker, trying to return him to the home, is comic genius.
Norma, Ron's wife and Gordo's mother, who seems to have little maternal affection, enjoys her golf and the country club and has no intention whatsoever of returning Ron from the nursing home to her top-floor apartment. She doesn't want to see Gordo there much either.
Malcolm Knox has written a sprawling, massive novel which works because, although most of the characters are damaged or inadequate, almost beyond repair, readers care for them.
There is one genuinely unpleasant, evil character, Michael Abottemey, aka "Frontal", the shire's deputy general manager, with an intimate knowledge of all the by-laws and regulations and a genuine hatred for Gordo. This hatred eventually drives the plot.
But evil lurks everywhere, although the author only needs to hint of it to set the reader's mind racing, so prevalent is it. Even in that most sacred of Old Australian places, the surf club, the president, father of Firie Sam, is a pervert, if not worse.
There are women in the story, too, plenty of them. Kelly, Gordo's errant wife, mother of Ben, who is an aspiring cricketer, Sally, Dog's wife, crooked on Kelly for her affair with Dog, the school principal, Jude Oxenford, who had been to school with them all.
And then Lou, Gordo's orphaned god-daughter. Lou is probably the only competent character in the whole novel. She exudes a muscular wholesomeness though she is described as a "rug-muncher" (I had to look it up).
The range of characters and the complexity of the plot and the general hopelessness of life in Bluebird might have risked sending readers away with a solid ringing in their ears. It is his exquisite skill as a writer that allows Malcolm Knox to keep all balls in the air so that the reader's interest is kept at a high level throughout.
Some may know Knox as a deeply knowledgeable, inventive and massively readable cricket writer. Others may know him as a skilled analyst of current Australia issues and understandings.
It is possible, however, that he has also just written the Great Australian Novel. Whatever of that, Malcolm Knox has written a novel that is layered, affectionate, amusing, dark. In a skilled conclusion he shows us hope so, again, a novel for the times.
Read this book, you will be much the better for it.
- Michael McKernan grew up in a beach-side suburb, very different from Bluebird.