by David McLaughlin
This year’s Australian/Vogel Literary Award for best unpublished Australian manuscript by a writer under 35 was recently awarded to Paul D. Carter for his coming of age story Eleven Seasons. You don’t need to know a lot about Australian Rules Football to enjoy Eleven Seasons, but it may add to the experience. As it happens I do know a lot about the game, having at an early age been coerced into swapping my Enid Blytons and long stitch for a mouth guard and woollen guernsey by my increasingly trepidatious father. Thus I embarked on a less than auspicious ‘eleven seasons’ of my own with the Seven Hills Bombers, perennial wooden spooners. The Bombers were desperate for numbers so I always got a run on the field, and although I couldn’t kick, handpass, knock into people or chase the ball, I had a brilliant time and I often scored the Coach’s Award for consistently turning up to training. Eleven Seasons brought it all back. But if you know nothing about the game don’t worry; this is a well crafted, heartfelt and very likeable novel.
The book follows Jason Dalton over a ten year period, from 1985 to 1995, as he tries to find his place in the world. Through this football obsessed schoolboy, the often painful adolescent period is evoked with truthfulness and nuance. Carter has thought long and hard about masculinity, and the positive and negative manifestations of manhood in Australia—from friendly father figures to predatory male gangs—and he has Jason chart a course through this minefield. By his side is his overworked, underpaid mother Christine who is struggling to raise Jason on her own, whilst battling to keep the lines of communication open between herself and her son. Melbourne in the eighties is brought vividly to life and of course there is the football: the town’s obsession with it, Jason’s prodigious mastery of it and his growing disillusionment with it.
I read another terrific story about growing up this month, David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Part of the newly released Text Classics range, Ballantyne’s book was first published in New Zealand in 1968 and is, according to Kate De Goldi in her excellent introduction, that country’s great unread novel. It is a brilliant read. I was half expecting a little bit of whimsy by the seaside, a reminiscence of idyllic times past, but boy was I in for a surprise! Ballantyne’s narrator is the young school kid Harry Baird, a loveable little ratbag who takes us on a journey of adventure, love, sex and death during an endless summer at Calliope Bay. Harry’s mother has gone to the city for a holiday and in her place comes his cousin Caroline, who is beautiful and impulsively flirtatious. Harry is instantly besotted. From here on out life begins to unravel, as we see—through Harry’s wildly imaginative eyes—the lines blur between morality and immorality, the grown up world and the world of the child, and the waking world and the world of nightmares. Harry tries to understand it all and gain, at any cost, the attention and love of his cousin.
Abdellah Taia’s An Arab Melancholia, although different in tone and packaging, is also a coming of age tale and an exploration of a sometimes destructive macho culture. Part of the handsome Semiotext(e) Native Agents series, this ‘autobiographical novel’ follows Taia over a twenty year period from the back streets of Sale, Morocco, in the eighties to Paris today. Taia is obsessed with finding his place in contemporary French society. He is a gay Muslim Arab with a pathologically romantic heart, living hand to mouth as a writer and filmmaker. Two old lovers swim around in his consciousness—the possessive, older Slimane and the younger tease, Javier. In poetic fragments and letters he interrogates these men in an attempt to work out what went wrong. Taia revisits his childhood in Morocco, where sex between men is often just a destructive power struggle and a fully fledged ‘gay identity’ is frowned upon. An Arab Melancholia is an illuminating, soul searching insight into the burdens and joys of the outsider. David McLaughlin