Thursday, 4 July 2013

MALCOLM KNOX A Private Man (2004)

Vintage/Random House Australia, 2004

At 6.59pm on the second Tuesday in November, Dr John Brand, a gentleman in late middle-age with an unremarkable face and grey suit, came back up the hill with the sprung stride of the self-worthy and a biography under his arm.  His brain was a powersurging mainframe of permutation and strategy, calculating when to approach the door, what angle of entry, how to hold his head at what precise angle, whether or not to meet other eyes, how to bear himself, how to hide the ever-so-soft tremble in his neck.  Flushed with reward he came to the portal and, without hesitation, sure as a pastor entering his vestibule, he entered this shop that had no door.  These establishments never had doors –– the door was in a man's heart.

The Novel:  The term 'crisis of masculinity' has now become a common and very widely used one in the Western world, capable of provoking earnest academic discussion or disbelieving laughter according to whichever socio-economic group – upper, middle or working class you happen to belong to.  (Men who live in the Third World appear to share an almost universal immunity to the condition –– mostly, I suspect, because they're too busy fleeing wars and famines or slaving away in dirty dangerous jobs for minimum wage to help support their families to have time to appear on chat shows or attend seminars devoted to the subject.  Ditto the elderly, the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the homeless –– none of whom are apparently viewed as being 'real men' by the mainstream media, at least in Australia, unless they also happen to be drought-affected farmers whose propensity to commit suicide was once considered excellent story fodder by the producers of some of its more reprehensible 'current affairs' programs.)  Valid or not, there's a growing feeling that being born male isn't the easy, automatically taken-for-granted privilege that it used to be back in, say, 1970.  The damage being done to men's previously sacrosanct image of themselves as the dominant sex by anger, depression, failed relationships, social alienation and the inescapable presence of pornography is making it increasingly difficult for them to relate to the world, to each other and – most alarmingly of all from a species-propagating point of view –– to women who are smarter, richer and generally much better suited to life in the fast-paced internet age than they appear to be.  

John Brand, a sixty-seven year old General Practitioner with a well-established practice in the once seedy but nowadays upwardly mobile Sydney suburb of Kings Cross, is one such 'man in crisis.'  Dr Brand has an addiction, but not to heroin or painkillers or even to alcohol.  His addiction is, in his eyes at least, far more insidious and morally corrosive than that.  His drug of choice is pornography – dirty magazines, X-rated movies and, to his combined delight and horror, the sexually graphic images that have suddenly become so easy to download from the internet. 

It's an obsession Dr Brand has managed to keep hidden all his life from his wife Margaret and from their three sons Davis, Chris and Hammett –– all grown men now who, in their various ways, are undergoing their own equally testing 'crises of masculinity.'  Davis' farcical marriage to his high-flying lawyer wife Lucy is clearly in trouble, Chris is struggling to maintain his tenuous position as the super-macho star batsman of the under-performing Australian Cricket Team while Hammett, after becoming estranged from the rest of his family as the result of his anti-social behaviour and psychosexual peculiarities, has become a successful purveyor of the same products his father finds so shamefully irresistible. 

John Brand's death –– long expected by him due to the life-threatening heart condition he's been keeping a well-hidden secret from his family along with all his other secrets –– proves to be a catalyst for his sons, the unanticipated event which forces them to examine and confront their own demons and failings even as Davis, who is also a doctor and suspects foul play, slowly unravels the truth about their father's hitherto unrevealed obsessions.  What Davis learns about their father –– in-between arguing with the tired, pressured and perpetually pissed-off Chris, breaking up with Lucy, falling in love with his pretty young locum, and exposing John's medical partner as the greedy, money-worshipping bastard that he is –– leads him inevitably to Hammett, the younger 'bad' brother who could never 'behave' or learn how to 'fit in' with the rest of them.  

Hammett proves to be the key not only to understanding their father's troubled life, but also to making sense of the complicated and less than fulfilling lives of Chris and Davis themselves.  Far from being their father's opposite, Hammett turns out to be the son that John shares the strongest bond with, the son who teaches him –– and, in time, his brothers –– that confronting and accepting who and what you are is much healthier, in the long run, than living in denial of it.  Abiding by rules that have been rendered irrelevant by a society where abstinence is now viewed as a worse 'sin' than devoting yourself to a life of unrepentant self-gratification is, in Hammett's eyes, the epitome of hypocrisy.  

Vintage/Random House Australia, 2010
Skilfully shifting back and forth in time between John Brand's final few tormented days on earth, his funeral and its aftermath, and the very different yet oddly-linked lives of his sons, Knox creates a picture of Australian masculinity in the twenty-first century that's as unexpected as it is dark, troubling and, in the end, positive.  Yes, these men have serious emotional problems.  Yes, they're unhappy, confused and dissatisfied.  (This diagnosis applies more to Davis and Chris than it does to Hammett, whose ability to accept himself makes him more mature than his brothers and, in that sense, more of a 'man' than either of them.)  It's the way the Brand boys face their problems –– sex, fame, marriage, sibling rivalry, divorce and intolerance –– and how they choose to confront their issues rather than continuing to deny them that makes A Private Man such a rewarding, fascinating and, at times, poignant and slyly funny novel.  (The scene where Davis meets his perpetually busy wife Lucy –– a woman he's never actually lived with so as not to 'give themselves a chance to tire of each other' –– for coffee in a trendy Darlinghurst café for their postponed weekly 'catch-up' is both hilarious and heartbreaking.  The chapters dealing with Chris' life as a formerly great cricket star on the comeback trail are also superbly handled –– something I say as an unabashed despiser of what I consider to be the world's dullest game.)  If you want to know what it's like to be an Australian male living in the post 9/11 world, trying to balance your 'blokey' side with your 'nurturing and sensitive' side, then you need look no further than Malcolm Knox's smart and enthralling second novel.

The Writer:   Malcolm Knox was born in 1966 and briefly studied law at the University of Sydney before deciding to switch to journalism.  He also studied at Scotland's University of St Andrews, where his one-act play Polemarchus was successfully performed.

In 1994 he joined the staff of The Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet journalist.  He was the newspaper's chief cricket correspondent from 1996 until 1999 and its assistant sports editor from 1999 until 2000.  From 2002 until 2006 he served as the Herald's chief literary editor, during which time he revealed that American/Jordanian writer Norma Khouri –– author of the award-winning memoir Forbidden Love – had not in fact lived in Jordan since early childhood and had only visited the country for three weeks prior to writing what proved to be her largely fictional but widely-praised bestseller.  For his efforts in exposing the fraud, Knox received the 2004 Walkley Award (along with his fellow journalist/co-researcher Caroline Ovington) for excellence in investigative journalism.

In 2000 Knox published his debut novel Summerland, a penetrating study of the rivalries and buried tensions which drive, torture and divide two wealthy Australian couples.  The book, which was published internationally, won favourable comparisons with both Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and was described, by The Times Literary Supplement, as 'a compelling novel with a sinister undertow.'  

Bloomsbury Publishing (alternative UK title), 2005
Knox is the author of three other novels –– A Private Man (2004), Jamaica (2008) and The Life (2011) –– and eleven works of non-fiction, including several works about cricket, a short history of Australia and an exposé of the Australian jury system titled Secrets of the Jury Room (2006) which was based on what he experienced while serving as a juror on a murder trial.  The book won an Alex Buzo Prize for research and was later serialized on ABC Radio.  It remains one of the few books in the world which honestly attempts to depict what it is that juries do and how they really function.

He was named one of 2001's Best Young Novelists by The Sydney Morning Herald and has been the recipient of several prestigious Australian literary prizes, including a 2005 Ned Kelly Award for A Private Man and a 2008 Colin Roderick Award for his third novel Jamaica.  In addition to being a regular contributor to the Australian news and current affairs magazine The Monthly he also serves as the author-selected Director of the Australian Copyright Agency.  

Malcolm Knox lives in Sydney with his wife and two children.  

Click HERE to read Lies, Truths and Other Mysteries, a short thought-provoking essay by MALCOLM KNOX originally published in Edition 16 of The Griffith Review.  You can also click HERE to view and listen to an interesting selection of interviews and talks given by him on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website.  KNOX's latest book – a study of the early 'golden days' of cricket titled Never A Gentleman's Game –– was published by Hardie Grant in November 2012.

You might also enjoy:
JOHN O'HARA Appointment in Samarra (1934)
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)
BENTLEY RUMBLE I Like What We Do (2012)  

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