Monday, July 23, 2012

This is Not a Book Review

The caveat lector that must accompany this post is that the author of To the Highlands buys fish from me; flathead to be specific. Doust also chats to me about writing over coffee and has been known in his frequent position of MC to make me stand up in a crowded room, excruciatingly beetroot, so he can loudly extoll my virtues as a writer and catcher of flathead.

So yes. Pressure. Writing about Jon Doust's new book could be Lose/Lose for me in that he may never buy another flathead again if I really get stuck into it - or you guys won't take me seriously because I'm cosying up to the locals. I could just bail out of this whole exercise but there is something grabbing me about To the Highlands, well lots of things and they are not going to let me go until I get it out of my system and write about them. Rather than a review, here are some musings.

The novel is set in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1968 and is the second of a trilogy. The first installment Boy on a Wire was long-listed for the Miles Franklin and dealt with the character Jack Muir's school days at Christchurch Grammar. Jack has now botched his final exams, sorely disappointed his parents as the younger ratbag bro of one of those perfect sibling types who go on to be lawyers, and exiled himself to work as a bank johnny at the Colonial Bank of Australia.

Whilst Boy on a Wire had an awful lot of masturbation scenes, it was a book I was happy to let my eleven year old read for its pathos, humility and hilarity (and probably the rest, I don't think it harmed him too much anyway). To the Highlands is more challenging, darker. Jack Muir's own Heart of Darkness. The press release notes call it 'disturbing'. Yep.

To the Highlands enters the 1960s world of white expat men in their long white socks; often sleazy, generally damaged and brutally blunt about which variation of local colour meant sex and which shades meant stay the hell away. My take on it was that the racism and misogyny expressed so relentlessly are a projection of a perceived rottenness within Jack Muir and that the narrative is the process by which this boil is finally lanced.

Doust teases out Muir's small town preconceptions - to women, to colonialism and racism. But Muir is eighteen, he has just been laid for the first time and he is not really in a position to nut out the whole Madonna/Whore fallacy whilst drinking a bottle of vodka every other night with a Native Welfare officer who gets black women to lift up their skirts for Muir and call him 'Masta'. However this is essentially a redemptive book. Where Ruark or Hemingway's writing would revel in the sweaty eroticism of the exotic other after a hard day spent shooting elephants and drinking whiskey, Muir's life becomes a bit of a self propelled trainwreck ... and anyway, Ruark and Hemingway both came to bad ends that reflected their worst foibles. Jack Muir begs you to forgive him and then screws up again, like a loving dog who can't help but destroy your favourite shoes.

The language in To the Highlands is a sparse, straightforward style which suits the heat and the roughness of the expat environment. I would even say that Doust's prose is part of an emerging, distinctly West Australian style, if there is such a thing and if you could include the words blunt and poetic in the same sentence. It was interesting reading this book because I also know how Jon speaks; his cadences and repetitions. In certain parts I was hearing him in the prose. It was slightly confusing and comforting at the same time, an interesting experience.

The other night I sat down to a pre gig dinner with some friends, most of whom have read To the Highlands. The conversation ended up being about misogyny, what it was and what it meant.
"Is the book misogynistic ... or does it depict misogyny?" someone asked.
The opinions of the men and the women sitting around the table were cleanly divided by gender.
"It's about misogyny," said one man. "It's about a young man learning what misogyny is and therefore, the kind of man he doesn't want to be."
A friend shook her head. "He eroticises these women, their calves, their breasts, how available they are. They are like the classic one dimensional 'black velvet' ..."
"Muir eroticises them, yes, makes them one dimensional, " he interjected, 'but the author and the subject are two different people, I think."

I hadn't read the book at that stage but it struck me then and after reading it, that this may be a difficult book for women. Maybe because reading an honest portrayal of a horny teenager's values when it comes to women can be an experience akin to seeing hard core p*rn and thinking "Is that how they see us? Is that who we are?" Maybe because all the female characters are frozen within a white male teenager's gaze. In any case, Doust doesn't let his boy off the hook. Kim Scott nailed it on the book's cover endorsement: "...with our prim censure destabilised, Doust helps us move toward an altogether more complicated and perhaps more compassionate attitude."

(And here is a really interesting article if you want to read more about the white male gaze in lit and film, with a quick quote: "Gaze isn’t a neutral thing. It’s immensely powerful and complex, yet subtle. The structure of gaze is always dominated by the social and political context of the other who is gazing.")

The thing is that despite all the heart of darkness stuff, Jack Muir's voice is authentic and beguiling as an innocent abroad and he is also very funny. We've all fucked up as teenagers or adults. Not many of us would excoriate our hearts enough to draw out all that pus again and write a book about it. And yes, it's time to say that it is a memoir of sorts, though veiled by a disclaimer and diversions into pure fiction for the purposes of narrative. Jon said that it was a difficult book to write. I don't know if I could do it. He said he needed a psych while he was writing it. I told him that after reading it, I probably need one too! I feel as though To the Highlands is not going to leave my mind in a hurry, that it will lurk about in there and reemerge with different perspectives as I grow.

And that is the beauty of a damn fine book, yes?

Jon Doust, To the Highlands, Fremantle Press, Western Australia, 2012. 


  1. Excellent book review. :)

  2. Yeah, she's pretty good at it. That Blood Meridian/Roving Party review from 12 months ago was really good. They're not so much criticisms as commentaries maybe, observations and thoughts at least. The way you put it Sarah, they come across all informed and with it. Certainly enough to convince the likes of me, anyhow.

  3. Glad to hear it Ciaran and Michelle.
    Crits are something I don't feel qualified to do but I do love talking and writing about books because the conversation continues, from one person sitting in a quiet room, to the rest of the world.

  4. Thanks Chris.
    PS, I don't think I mentioned this ... but I loved it, for all the reasons described above.