Monday 11 May 2009

The Canberra Times Review: Carrying a school boy's scars into manhood

BOY ON A WIRE. By Jon Doust. Fremantle Press. 236pp. $24.95.
Australian fiction boasts no Billy Bunter and its school stories have usually involved day, rather than boarding, establishments. Think, early on, of Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians.
In common with at least every literature written in English, the deforming power of institutions has been a common theme in Australian writing, whether this involves the victimised children who attended Fairbridge or the domains of the Christian Brothers.
In Jon Doust's fictionalised autobiography, Boy' on a Wire, his recalcitrant hero, Jack Muir, is sent to board at the Grammar School in Perth. following his brother, the apparently impeccable Thomas, and their father.
There Jack suffers - along with most others -his share of physical abuse: bullying by older students, caning by masters, who are often summoned after hours in their shabby dressing gowns. Yet - and this is a curious and distinctive feature of Doust's novel - none of this seems much to touch Jack Muir. It is as if this account of his school days shows them to have been a period of stasis, a long interlude between childhood in rural Western Australia, and the world of work.
(The novel's postscript, "Where are they now?", shows that the main character's fate is to have become a "successful, angry journalist").
In one strand of the novel, a darker tale of school experience is related. This involves a boy who seems doomed to be picked on wherever he goes - William Broadbent (Sad) Sack. He has been moved from the care of the monks of New Norcia to the Grammar School. Eventually he confides in Jack, "They did things to boys." And he never recovers. He does not last long enough to become one of those to whom Doust dedicates his book: "To all those boys who carried their scars into manhood". Instead, moved once again, Sack kills himself in Scotland.
In Boy on a Wire, Doust refuses numerous gambits of the Bildungsronian (as the Germans ponderously style the education novel). This is not a tale of innocence lost. Although Jack conducts a querulous conversation with God for some years, he is not possessed of many illusions to shed. Most tormenting is the effortless superiority of his older brother, whose path through school to the law is never in doubt.
Nor is this a tale of sexual initiation, despite more scenes in the book taking place in the showers than the classroom. Absent from the Grammar School as well, as far as Jack is concerned, (and notwithstanding the headmaster's Speech Day boasts) is any teacher to inspire him.
Such denials of conventional expectations for the school story keep Boy on a Wire off centre. The essential dramas of Jack's life are not concerned with school, but within his family. His neurasthenic mother, who has a belated third son, has hidden from Jack all details about her father until he dies. Jack's own father is on the one hand a pillar of the community - (briefly) serving in World War II, ex-Grammarian, Rotarian, proprietor of a successful farm machinery business. Yet he clearly seeks a stronger, more emotional bond with his middle son than he can articulate, or bring into being. In the portrayal of his relationship, Doust's method is oblique and we are intrigued by what the story of father and son might have yielded but for the cultural forces by which it is stunted.
Perhaps it is because of this that at school Jack becomes a boy "who can't stop fighting back". He is rebellious, but not extravagantly so. He fights a lot - in frustration, sometimes in a desire to make up from wrongs done to others. He is very good at sport, but this is intimated by Doust and then carefully underplayed.
While Jack makes good friends, circumstances ensure that this is never for very long. School does not socialise him.
He is gregarious but solitary: just the sort of unusual student whom school reports routinely fail to describe or understand.
Boy on a Wire chooses not to be polished, or preachy. Some of the writing seems hurried and untidy. Yet the mixture of wit and resilience that Jack shows invigorates the story, down to those last two pages that dryly sketch the adult fates of those whom we have met.
Anson Cameron (Lies I Told About a Girl) and Peter Goldsworthy (in Everything I Knew) have also made rich, but very different assays of the non-Catholic school experience. In the long literary historical view - when time is given to take it - this will seem another small, but significant shift in the social reckonings that Australian fiction makes.
Peter Pierce is an honorary research
fellow and professor at the National
Centre for Australian Studies at Monash

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