Johnno? Netty would rather make cupcakes …

December 15, 2010

OK, I’m just gonna put this out there.

In the three years Andy and I have been doing Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge, David Malouf’s Johnno is the book I have liked the least, alongside Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories Of My Melancholy Whores and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Like those two novels, Johnno is not without some, albeit limited, merits, but my overriding feeling is that I have tackled Malouf for both the first and last times. Harsh? Read on …

From memory, this was Andy’s choice, but I was more than keen, too – after all, is David Malouf not one of the great men of modern Australian letters? I had never heard of Johnno, Malouf’s debut novel, originally published in 1975 when the author was 41 (although he had been publishing poetry collections for some 10-plus years prior to that). My first twinge of doubt came when reading the book’s back dust jacket. “Christ,” I thought, “this is a bloody boy’s-own, coming-of-age story.” In fact, I’m surprised it never made its way on to my English lit reading lists back in my HSC days (I realised after finishing it that, actually, it did – just in the guise of Christopher Koch’s The Boys In The Island, another boy’s-own, coming-of-age story that also left me distinctly underwhelmed).

It starts out promisingly enough. The narrator, a man we later come to know as “Dante” (a nickname bestowed upon him by the book’s eponymous character) has returned from overseas to his hometown of Brisbane after the sudden death of his father. In the post-funeral, grief-stricken haze, Dante sets about putting his father’s things in order when he comes across a photo from his teenage years of his lifesaving team – in it is his childhood friend Johnno, who was never actually a member. It kick-starts Dante’s memories and recollections of the story of an unlikely friendship between two very different characters. But also two very clichéd characters, to my mind.

Dante plays the reserved, introspective, bookish counterpart to Johnno’s wise-cracking, devil-may-care prankster (ho hum), although as the pair progressed into early adulthood, I started to think Johnno was less a “renegade” than a barely functioning loser with serious mental health issues, not to mention a burgeoning case of rampant alcoholism. Dante traces their uneasy, developing friendship from primary and high school, set against a very evocative backdrop of Brisbane during the Second World War years (Dante’s reminisces of the Brisbane of his boyhood are passages of sublime, effortless writing that were a pleasure to devour) through university and beyond to their respective and intertwined voyages overseas, particularly in Europe.

Finally, the novel’s arc lands the pair, separately, back in Brisbane again, where Johnno meets a gee-whiz-you-didn’t-see-that-coming, predictable end. Which is announced in one of the most clumsy passages I can ever recall – Dante is banging on about the fate of some friends of Johnno’s, then suddenly – bang. Johnno, too, is dead. No build-up, no real lead-in, no suspense. Did Johnno kill himself, did he just meet with an unfortunate accident, or is that two hours of my life I could have spent doing something more worthwhile, like baking cupcakes, for instance?

And herein lies the rub. To really enjoy a book, the reader has to have some degree of empathy with its characters – or at least to be held in those characters’ thrall. But Johnno’s rebel-with(out)-a-cause stance left me unmoved – I didn’t dislike the character, I just didn’t care about him. At all. Ditto Dante. I found the characterisation uneven, often clunky – and there often appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the friendship. Throughout the book, I was constantly wondering why these two disparate characters would choose to remain, whether in the heart or on the periphery, in one another’s lives.

But then Johnno is dead, and Dante receives a posthumous letter from Johnno declaring his love for him. And then the reader remembers other, earlier passages – Dante’s brief European relationship with “a boy from Sarina”, Johnno’s proposal for Dante to whore himself in Sweden as a way for the pair to make ends meet, Johnno’s own, shady liaisons, hinted at rather than outlined.

So, yes, I agree with Andy’s summation of Johnno as a gay novel, be it intentional or unwittingly so. But, just for the record, this is what the author himself said in the 1998 edition:  “Readers of a later and more knowing time have taken this to be a gay novel in disguise. It is not. If I had meant to write a gay novel I would have done so. If there was more to tell about these characters I would have told it.”

Malouf, who is, incidentally, himself gay (not that that is neither here nor there), has also said his debut novel is largely autobiographical and that the character of Johnno is based on a schoolfriend who also died early. I dunno, you do the math. If you can be bothered, that is. Gay, straight, humping fire hydrants – in the end I. Just. Didn’t. Care. I had lost two hours of my life that I would never get back, and nor were there any cupcakes cooling on the kitchen counterbench. A disappointment all round, methinks.

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