Synopsis: Thinly veiled autobiographical account of David Malouf’s adolescence and early adulthood and his changing relationships with his eponymous best friend, Johnno and the town of his birth, Brisbane. A must for all Queenslanders.
My Take: I have a very warm spot in my heart for David Malouf. He’s the kind of writer that I would love to be – a poet who divides his time between writing classical allegories set in the Roman Empire and stories of humid days and stormy nights spent on the decks of Queenslander houses. He’s living proof that “Queensland literary giant” is no oxymoron and as such I cling to him dearly.
“Johnno” isn’t Malouf’s best work (I’ll plump for the Miles Franklin winning The Great World in this respect), but as a fellow Queenslander, it is my favourite. No other book I’ve read quite evokes the experiences and outlook of the Great Northern State quite like Malouf’s first book, “Johnno”. While the Brisbane City Council may not usually be recognised as a noted judge of literary achievement, its recent selection of “Johnno” as the book that best represents Brisbane was spot on.
While quite short and simply written, “Johnno” is a complex and layered book. In a funny way, “Johnno” is part Hugh Lunn, part Aeschylus. At the most basic level, it is a lovingly told coming of age story of two unlikely friends in 1940s and 50s Brisbane. Thematically however, Malouf piles many layers of meaning into this work. I’m no literary expert, but to my mind the most interesting part of this book is how Malouf uses the evolving relationship between the urbane but insecure auto-biographical protagonist, ‘Dante’ and his hedonistic and superficially assured best friend Johnno as a platform for exploring Malouf’s evolving perceptions of place and family.
On the one hand, throughout his youth Dante/Malouf envies Johnno’s bravura and seemingly blissfully relaxed approach to life. While he feels like an outsider, Dante/Malouf genuinely wants to fit into the simple, happy, physical lifestyle in Brisbane that his father long enjoyed. On the other hand, Dante/Malouf is repelled by Johnno’s lack of refinement and ambition. Dante/Malouf sees himself as ultimately being apart from Brisbane, an intellectual and sophisticate with broader horizons and ambitions than other Queenslanders.
Unfortunately, as a young man, Dante/Malouf invariably failed to see that his perceptions of Johnno/his father/Brisbane were more a function of his insecurity than their shallowness. Throughout the majority of the novel Dante/Malouf views Johnno/his father/Brisbane in black and white. As a result he feels the need to reject what he feels Johnno/his father/Brisbane stand for in order to validate his own, broader intellectual ambitions.
In this regard, Dante/Malouf’s strident complaints about Brisbane ring true to anyone who grew up there:
‘I might grow old in Brisbane, but I would never grow up.’
‘Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely… It is simply the most ordinary place in the world…It was so shabby and makeshift … a place where poetry could never occur.’
However, the fact that these complaints are so familiar directly undermine any justification for Dante/Malouf’s sense of separateness. Dante/Malouf was never as isolated and stifled in Brisbane as he thought as a young man. Many of those around him who he had written off as dully shallow and suburban had similar rich internal lives and ambitions. However, it is only when looking back with the benefit of age and the perspective of having lived in Paris, Italy and London that Malouf is able to realise that Johnno/his father/Brisbane were far more nuanced and complex than he had given them credit for.
Malouf has a real talent for bringing out these realisations in the most affecting ways. In one of the saddest moments of the book, Johnno’s last letter to Dante before his suicide reveals that he had always admired the intellectual qualities in Dante that he had thought Johnno had misunderstood, describing him as:
‘the most exotic creature — so strange and untouchable. Like a foreign prince’.
Similarly, when sorting through his father’s belongings soon after his death, Dante is forced to similarly revaluate his perceptions of his Father:
‘Now as I began to sort through his “effects” it occurred to me how little I had really known him … I had forced upon my father the character that fitted most easily with my image of myself; to have had to admit to any complexity in him would have compromised my own.’
In this way, I think “Johnno” is a story about what all Queenslanders go through at some point in their lives – the process of revaluating the black and white judgements of their youth about the place in which they grew up. “Johnno” is about the process of leaning that while Queensland is far from the most cosmopolitan place in the world, neither is it a cultural backwater devoid of the human experience. Life might still seem impossibly boring there, but it’s ultimately the people that make a place what it is. If you make the effort to look below the surface, you’ll see that the people of Queensland are just as complex and nuanced participants in the human experience as anyone else. It might not make you feel as special or unique to admit it, but it opens up a world of enriching relationships that might never have realised existed.
‘Still 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.’
‘The hundred possibilities a situation contains may be more significant than the occurrence of any of them, and metaphor truer in the long run than fact.’