One of the joys of moving around the world is that your reading net is spread widely. Brisbane has been my home for the last two years and in that time I have read literature that has sprung from Brisbane. I want to understand the nature of the city I am living in and how it has changed. Reading "Johnno" David Malouf's book on his relationship with an interesting young school friend has done exactly that. He is of course one of Brisbane's best known authors.
The setting is set in the prologue. David returns to Brisbane because his father has passed away. Clearing out the house and possessions is a big task especially as his father never threw anything away. There are poignant insights into what he thought of his father, his humble beginnings, and what he remembered of him. He describes their house in Brisbane, what it meant to be a success in the community they lived in and the social mores of the day.
In the many boxes he had to look through he comes across a picture of a group of boys, lifesavers in fact, and the odd one out was his friend Johnno. He had never been a lifesaver and he didn't know how he came to be in the picture. He looked at it for a long time. It was so like his friend to play a trick on him. As he said in the book "this was a joke with a time fuse" but it also ensured that the book that David had in his head about his friend would finally be written.
The two boys met at school – Johnno was the naughty and rebellious one. David Malouf aka "Dante" as Johnno called him was more of an intellect, more of a bookworm and not prone to extending the boundaries of socially accepted behavior. Johnno tested those boundaries on a regular occasion.
The author describes how one day he was invited to go to Johnno's house and how he equipped himself for the visit. I wont tell you how but it was an interesting piece of psychology on the part of the young David Malouf. He needed to be accepted or be seen as being equal to his new friend.
The relationship grows in a city – barely so at the time – which has landmarks, which are well known to us all and others that have disappeared. The boys were growing up in the years of the depression and the war years, and the city bears the many scars. What was clear at the time was that it was a place that young people wanted to get away from, where they felt very little was on offer. A few bars, the Greek Club and that was really it. Lots of drinking and being a little loutish. Daily life and habits are woven into the story. Entertaining on the front porches, the mustiness of the old houses, snippets of daily life. Later the newfound wealth and the bigger houses and mansions south of the River are all described by the author from his own experiences of them.
They attended Brisbane Grammar and were schooled in literature and the sciences. Johnno called David Dante for his knowledge. David explained how Dante loved his city. By contrast Brisbane was " so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely." He characterizes it as the most ordinary place in the world. "As for Queensland that is a joke. The moonshine state. Half of it still wild (there are tigers as yet undiscovered in Cape York Peninsula according to some authorities) the rest detained in a sort of perpetual nineteenth century".
They graduate from school and head to university and see each other sporadically for some drunken evenings and prowls in the town, ending up at bars and brothels, as perhaps most young men of the day did. The intention all along was to escape the confines of Brisbane and for Johnno that meant Africa followed by Europe with David following on a little later.
After a number of years abroad, they both find themselves back in Brisbane where the friendship takes off again, somewhat differently from before. There is still an element of discovery in the way that David writes about Johnno. Johnno's life, his pursuits and his writings always caught him by surprise and writing about him was perhaps his attempt to decipher the inner workings of his childhood friend.
He recreates the relationship as well as the city. They are both memorable. The city very different from what we see today. The relationship still a source of unanswered questions and possible revelations.