by Jon Doust
Fremantle Press, 236pp, $24.95
reviewed by Jo Donnellan
Jon Doust is well known in Western Australia as an amusing speaker of wiry physique, his low-key anecdotal style reminiscent of Garrison Keilor with a touch of Walter Mitty. He is perhaps lesser known as a writer.
His first serious novel, ‘Boy on a Wire’, telling of the adolescent years of the boy Jack Muir, reveals the author’s depth and passion. It is the story of a child whose clear Christian ethic and blazing sense of justice are confounded by his family, his peers and by his Christian boarding school. Most of the characters are composites*, yet the story is evidently based on experience.
Why was it written? As a personal catharsis, or to reveal the dark side of a particular school system, or to acknowledge those who sank beneath the weight of the system, as well as those who survived? The dedication reads ‘For all those boys who carried their scars into manhood’.
Notwithstanding some very funny passages, the predominant mood of the book is dark. Themes of cruel oppression, injustice and disillusion run through it. There are beatings and fights, and persecution both physical and spiritual.
The cover design shows the back view of a young man standing on top of a stone column above a grey rippling ocean. The man is dressed for cold weather. It is a lonely image.
Doust uses the first person, present tense throughout, giving immediacy to the narrative. His graceful English is without tricks or crudity: minimal slang is used, even in dialogue. Only the foreign accent of a particular character is indicated phonetically.
Parallel with the action run Jack’s intense interior monologues and conversations with God, providing important windows into his inner self.
* Probably the only character given his real name is Tom Brittain, a Manjimup forester, a handsome quiet man of towering physique: a man who revered the majestic timber of the south-west forests. The log chop at the local show was his event. A master of his craft, he made it look easy.
Jack enjoys chopping wood and visualises ‘Big Tom Brittain swinging from the hips in slow perfect movements and dismantling huge logs of the hardest wood on Planet Earth.’ Images of Big Tom Brittain’s rhythm and contained strength recur in Jack’s mind at moments of threat and confusion at boarding school.
The novel is set in the nineteen sixties in a farming and timber town in south-west Western Australia and in a Perth city boarding school. Jack’s practical, unimaginative father is a shopkeeper. His mother, emotionally volatile yet submissive, is a churchgoer who teaches Jack a strict system of truthfulness and respect. The parents produce two contrasting offspring. Unlike his stolid, capable elder brother Thomas, Jack is sensitive, witty, volatile, not to be trusted with machinery, and an indifferent scholar. His parents ascribe his shortcomings to a medical condition:
He’s often irritable, Doctor, and his teacher worries about him…his face is often very red. Do you think it’s the pinks disease?
What is it, Doctor, I ask, the pinks disease?
It’s all right Mrs Muir. It’s time he knew. Pinks disease, acrodynia, is mercury poisoning, son. When you were a baby you had all the symptoms: peeling skin, rashes, pink scalp, irritability and respiratory distress.
How did I get it?
We’re not sure, but a lot of baby products had mercury in them and some babies were very sensitive to it, but not all. Clearly your brother Thomas wasn’t.
And that is that. The doctor gives me some medication, confirms that some doctors believe salt will help.
Embedded in this passage is the disturbing idea that his parents may have inadvertently poisoned him.
Salt becomes a recurring element. In moments of exasperation, trying to cool his hot head, Jack licks salt from his palm. His father, making indirect reference to his inadequacies, constantly reminds him to eat plenty of salt. Later Jack becomes expert at surfing in the salty ocean.
Lists are another recurring motif. His father makes daily detailed lists of prosaic tasks he and his sons must do. At boarding school Jack makes a more potent list, of five bullies to be paid back. At the back of the book another list outlines the eventual fates of the main characters.
Birds are significant. The story opens with Thomas shooting parrots. The difference between the brothers is revealed by Thomas’ impassive efficiency, while Jack anxiously questions their right to destroy life.
Perversely Jack shoots one of his mother’s favourite small birds. Afterwards he tussles with the notions of Satan’s power within him, and of God’s avenging wrath.
A new boarder at secondary school, he is shocked and frightened by an unjustified beating from a housemaster. Bewildered, naked and in pain, he recalls the image of a small bird he once saw clinging to an overhead power line in a storm, blown about helplessly until it flew off to the shelter of a big old tree. For Jack there is no tree, no haven in this so-called godly school. He remains the ‘Boy on a Wire’.
During a tortured adolescent phase he kills and burns a crow, carelessly starting a bushfire. (In a forest region this is a serious offence). His father’s scornful rejection completes his sense of desolation.
Jack struggles to explain man’s inhumanity to man. In his childish mind the issues are clear and God’s silence is inexplicable. The mystery of God’s silence in the face of wrongdoing pervades the book.
The injustice of his parents’ favouritism galls him. Brotherly friendship is impossible due as much to his parents’ attitude as to the gulf between the sensibilities of the two boys. Events burden Jack with an uneasy mix of anger, guilt and protectiveness towards Thomas.
At Grammar School not only are the masters unpredictably violent; the bigger boys bully the smaller, newer ones. Jack’s intense feeling for integrity and fair play is outraged by the hypocrisy of the authorities and by the cowardly brutality of the bullies.
Throughout the book runs a thread of sexual persecution.
The local butcher takes liberties with married women on social occasions and to Jack’s dismay nobody challenges him. At primary school a teacher ogles the female students and Jack fumes hotly at the crassness of the man.
Jack’s mother suffers a troubled relationship with her father. Obliquely the cause of her bowed spirit and her unstable temperament is linked to some form of paternal oppression.
At boarding school each new boarder is ritually subjected to crude and painful indignities. A vulnerable boy is traumatised by this treatment. Jack divines the boy’s deep shame and sexual confusion. He makes it his solemn mission to avenge the boy’s suffering.
With all his strength Jack manages to resist an ambush by a group of older boys who would drag him behind closed doors for ugly purposes. He escapes at the cost of a thorough bruising.
A distraught young boy confides in him after an incident of interference by a stranger. Jack manages by means of quiet sympathy, respect, and a touch of humour, to comfort and restore the boy. It is a redemptive moment, described with consummate sureness.
Slowly Jack finds a way of being. His elder brother moves on. He counts down the list of bullies he has vowed to humble. He discovers girls. Unofficial rites of passage involving drink, and the law, take place. He opens up a rapport with his father. Jack’s relationship with God alters and his ties to the church loosen. Jack Muir has learned to take life with a grain of salt. He will survive to ‘carry his scars into manhood’.
Doust’s writing is powerful in its unpretentiousness. The spareness of his prose allows the content full impact. Skilful understatement in the telling adds drollery to the humorous passages. The author takes us deep into the tender, idealistic heart of the child Jack Muir. This is sincerely felt storytelling accomplished with a light but compelling touch.
JD, Perth, August 2009