The relationship between Johnno and Dante is never straightforward, it changes like the city around them. The surviving landmarks from their wartime childhood and the memory of others having made way for newer structures. Both characters search for acceptance, intially with Dante awkwardly seeking Johnno’s childhood friendship. However, as they grow into men the relationship is inverted with Johnno reaching out to an isolated and emotionally distant Dante. As they enter university their paths cross infrequently, Johnno’s wildness having evolved into bouts of public intoxication and a voracious appetite for classical literature, albeit while studying geology. Dante meanwhile withdraws into his study of Latin prose and observes the peccadilloes of his friend and the evolving city around him.
It is Malouf’s reimagining of the life of his childhood friend Johnny Millner. The mystery and unknown elements that are always present between the two reminds me of other literary relationships, such as Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road. As much as we may want to know the truth, it is always something outside of our grasp.
In addition to the relationships, the book is also a means of capturing a particular place in time. As David Malouf has said:
The parts of the book I like best are not about either of the central characters, but all the stuff about Brisbane. It really is a history of Brisbane [in the 1940s and 1950s] which had never been written, and it’s an attempt to produce for readers all the detail of what it was like to live in that atmosphere, with that weather, and with that particular social structure. There is a huge amount of detail in the book and I treat that detail as if it were in a poem, so that there is something sensuously felt and emblematic of something larger. I think that’s probably the most successful aspect of the book.
Malouf also captured this in his autobiography, 12 Edmondstone Street.
As a side note, I listened to this via ABC Listen app where they have made a number of audiobooks available.
the fact remains, he had me hooked. As he had, of course, from the beginning. I had been writing my book about Johnno from the moment we met. Page 18
We were appalled and delighted by him. He gave our class, which was otherwise noted only for its high standards of scholarship, a dash of criminal distinction. Page 21
History was The Past. I had just missed out on it. There was nothing in our own little lives that was worth recording, nothing to distinguish one day of splashing about in the heavy, warm water inside the reef from the next. Page 25
Was I a war child, I sometimes asked. Was there anyone in those days who was not? “Before the war” was a hazy, rose-coloured period I could only vaguely recall. I associated it with the smell of oil-cloth picture books and the little spring chickens we used to eat, a whole chicken on each plate so that everyone had a wishbone. It was simply the earliest things I could remember. The clop of the milkman’s horse in Edmondstone Street just before dawn, and our blue-ringed jugs on the doorstep, their crochet covers weighted round the border with Reckitts-blue beads. Or waiting out front for the iceman to come with his hook, and the huge block dripping all over Cassie’s floor. Was it the war, I wondered afterwards, or some change in me, that made everything in the years before I went to school seem different from the khaki and camouflage years that came after, when even the flowers we made out of plasticine were a uniform grey, the result of a dozen colours that could not be replaced being patted and squeezed into a single colour that was like the dirt-rolls in your palm. Was it only the war that made things change? And what would happen when the war was over? I knew the lights would come on again, all over the world. Even in Queen Street. But what else? Page 26
It had been ruined. Like our girls. Who had been ruined by the high wages they were paid in munitions factories and by the attentions of foreign servicemen, but most of all by their passion for nylon. Things had gone to pieces. Children had been allowed to run wild under the special conditions of Australia at war, and now there was no holding them. For all this and a good deal more Johnno was the perfect model, and other parents than mine must have shaken their heads over him and thanked their stars that they weren’t responsible for the windows he broke or the words he shouted Page 34
For all this and a good deal more Johnno was the perfect model, and other parents than mine must have shaken their heads over him and thanked their stars that they weren’t responsible for the windows he broke or the words he shouted Page 34
The continent itself is clear enough, burned into my mind on long hot afternoons in Third Grade, when I learned to sketch in its irregular coastline: the half-circle of the Great Australian Bight, the little booted foot of Eyre’s Peninsula, Spencer’s Gulf down to Port Phillip, up the easy east coast, with its slight belly at Brisbane, towards Sandy Cape and Cape York; round the Gulf of Carpentaria and Arnhem Land to the difficulties of King Sound and the scoop towards North West Cape where I always go wrong, leaving the spurred heel of Cape Leeuwin so far out in the Indian Ocean that it would wreck every liner afloat, or so close in to the Bight that far-off Western Australia looks as if it’s been stricken with polio. I know the outline; I know the names (learned painfully for homework) of several dozen capes, bays, promontories; and can trace in with a dotted line the hopeless journeys across it of all the great explorers, Sturt, Leichhardt, Burke and Wills. But what it is beyond that is a mystery. It is what begins with the darkness at our back door. Page 52
The library had its own people. You never saw them anywhere else in the city, except there, or on the buttoned-leather couches at the School of Arts: old men with watery red-rimmed eyes and no collar to their shirt, who settled somewhere as soon as the library opened at ten in the morning and stayed put till it was time to queue at the Salvation Army Refuge or the St. Vincent de Paul, about an hour before dusk. Page 59
“I’m going to shit this bitch of a country right out of my system,” he told me fiercely. “Twenty fucking years! How long will it take me, do you think, to shit out every last trace of it? At the end of every seven years you’re completely new — did you know that? New fingernails, new hair, new cells. There’ll be nothing left in me of bloody Australia. I’ll be transmuted. Page 90
I had broken through into my own consciousness; and Paris — Europe — was a different place. Page 109
In the summers I went to Europe, and got to know one or two towns as well almost as I knew Brisbane — better perhaps since the Brisbane I knew was already changing (my mother’s letters kept me informed of old places torn down and of new ones emerging, the Grand Central replaced by a shopping arcade, a whole block in front of the Town Hall ploughed up to make a parking station, the old markets cleared out of the city into a distant suburb, new bridges, new highways); the Brisbane I knew had its existence only in my memory, in the fine roots it had put down in my own emotions, so that a particular street corner would always be there for me in a meeting that had almost changed my life, or in the peculiar fact, half-sweet, half-sad, that it was from there that a certain tram had left, the scene of sentimental adolescent partings. It was the town I would always walk in, in my memory at least, with an assurance I could know nowhere else, finding my way by the smells — a winebar, the fruit barrow in a laneway, a hardware shop, the disinfectant they used in Coles. I could have made my way through it blindfold, as I often did in my sleep, amazed to discover that in my Brisbane the old markets hadn’t been removed at all, and the Grand Central, that extraordinary three-ring circus of my youth, was still in full swing. I could see my own reflections in its mirrors. And Johnno’s as well. It would always be there. Page 115
It is a sobering thing, at just thirty, to have outlived the landmarks of your youth. And to have them go, not in some violent cataclysm, an act of God, or under the fury of bombardment, but in the quiet way of our generation: by council ordinance and by-law; through shady land deals; in the name of order, and progress, and in contempt (or is it small-town embarrassment?) of all that is untidy and shabbily individual. Brisbane was on the way to becoming a minor metropolis. Page 132
Well, the seven years were up. Like a bad charm. And it was Johnno who was gone. Australia was still there, more loud-mouthed, prosperous, intractable than ever. Far from being destroyed, the Myth was booming. There were suggestions that it would soon be supporting thirty million souls. Australia was the biggest success-story of them all. Page 135