Thursday, 23 February 2012

Western Australian Writing Review: Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust

I thought I would kick off a new round of reviews today and just give you a little taste of the kind of literature that I am trying to promote.

Jon Doust's Boy on a Wire was published in 2009, and is a memoir style fiction about growing up in Western Australia during the 1960s.  The book's protagonist, Jack Muir, comes up from Glenoralup (near Bunbury?) to begin his years at the suitably vague 'Grammar School', an Anglican (?) school for boys that we are told is near a river.  My guess is that it is supposed to be Guildford Grammar, although the book's acknowledgements site Christ Church as being a reference.  I think that the setting is supposed to be largely amorphous- the school could be any boys school at the time, the trials faced by Jack could be anyone's trials.  And that is why we like Jack, as a reader, despite him being a trouble maker.

Jack suffers from what everyone calls 'Pink's Disease'- a build up of Mercury in his system that requires him to ingest more salt to replenish his natural stores.  He is constantly licking little piles of salt out of his palm in an attempt to try and control his bad behaviour.  Jack's bad behaviour is contrasted to his brother, Thomas's.  Thomas is the golden boy.  He gets good grades, behaves appropriately and is good with machinery.  He is a real man, unreachable to Jack, who spends a large part of his high school days wondering when he will experience the urge to 'wank' like all the other boys.  This sexual awakening is a milestone for Jack and the moment at which he will become a man.

The book is riddled with pop culture references and intertextual links.  Jack's consciousness becomes a mish mash of his idols- The Phantom, Tom Brown, the Count of Monte Cristo and Atticus Finch.  They provide him with a moral code.  After a young, potentially traumatized student is tormented by the dorm bullies, Jack takes them on one by one.  He is not the strongest or the biggest but he is fearless, and has arm muscles from chopping wood at home.  It becomes apparent that his revenge is less about 'Sack' than it is about Jack's own chip on his shoulder when 'Sack' antagonises Jack and Jack still continues to go after the boys.  What 'Sack' stands for is more important to Jack than the boy himself.  

This intertextuality is a common theme in books set around this time.  Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones also deals with a protagonist who looks for answers in novels from other countries- To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn.  

I liken this book to Salinger's Catcher in the Rye in that it is predominately about an emotional journey, a downward awakening if you will.  The conclusion to the novel leaves you worrying for Jack, as he is at his 'worst' yet by conventional standards, but also hopeful because Doust makes it clear that Jack has discovered his self.  It is a muted book, the narrator seems to view everything at a distance, and yet this seems to follow the sleepy pace of Perth life.  And it is about life, this book, about Doust's life and the lives of others like him.  

I was disappointed at times by the way that themes were picked up but never fully resolved- the plotline with Jack's grandfather adds drama but is then let to fizzle out off the page.  Thomas's head injury always seems like it will reveal a twist, a permanent mental deformity that will explain some of Jack's troubles, but it never does.  I was also disappointed to have found several typos in the edition- the wrong use of too.  

This was a very useful and very though provoking read.

3 out of 5 beaten down bullies.

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