Malcolm Knox’s sixth novel, Bluebird, comes with some impressive endorsements. On the front cover is “Charlotte Wood, author of The weekend“, while the back features “Christos Tsiolkas, author of Damascus and The slap” and “Adam Gilchrist, former test cricketer and beach-goer”. Hang on, Adam Gilchrist? What the?
Some of you will know why, but I didn’t. However, I now know that as well as being a novelist, Knox is a respected journalist who has been a cricket correspondent, sport editor, and literary editor. Wikipedia reminded me that he was the literary editor who exposed “the fake Jordanian memoirist, Norma Khouri“. This won him and co-journalist, Carolyn Overington, a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism.
The thing is, I knew Malcolm Knox’s name, but had read none of his novels or his many works of non-fiction. Consequently, I came to Bluebird cold. I have no idea whether it is typical of Knox’s writing, but, I did enjoy it.
Superficially, it looks like a satire on all those beach communities that pepper Australia’s coasts – the middle-aged men who prefer surfing to working, the country-club set, the councils which sell out to developers, small-town racism and gay-bashing, and so on. You can imagine it, I’m sure. Except that, in fact, it soon becomes clear that while a beach-town might be the setting, Bluebird’s satire is broader, reaching into wider aspects of contemporary Australian life – dysfunctional men and broken families, development, aged care, banking, local government, the list goes on. It’s more that given Australians’ love for the beach, such a town makes the perfect, relatable, setting for his tale.
However, satire can sometime be an intellectual exercise, engaging the mind more than the heart, but Knox achieves both, by creating flawed characters whom we recognise and can engage with, and by telling a story that is just that bit larger than life to make it exciting but not so much that it doesn’t feel real. At first, I was concerned that it was just a little bit too smart-alecky for me, that there were just a few too many biting lines, but I found myself drawn in because I cared about the seemingly hapless 50-year-old Gordon and (some of) his family and friends.
How did they get away with it?
The novel is told in four parts – First Part, Next Part, This Part and Last Part – with each introduced in an italicised section by “Bird’s eye”, a not quite disinterested truth-teller. The story concerns the recently unemployed, recently separated Gordon, and his attempts to keep Bluebird’s iconic house, The Lodge, intact. The Lodge, however, is more than a house; it’s a symbol of all that is both good and rotten in Bluebird, in Gordon’s family, in, I think we could say, Australia. It is a paradox. Bird’s eye, introducing First Part, says:
This house is not an answer but a question: absolute beachfront yet virtually inaccessible, sitting on premium real estate that is somehow not real estate at all, a historic abuse protected by custom.
And the question is, how did they get away with it, or, more pointedly, as Bird’s eye asks, what have they got away with, to, even more pointedly, will they keep getting away with it.
So, through Gordon, the novel explores how its characters (and, dare I say, Australians) have managed to maintain the good life. Gordon lives in his beloved Lodge, sharing the bunk room with his teenage son Ben, who has some sort of “Asperger-ish ADHD-sih, non-specific, nameless disorder-is Thing”, and his goddaughter Lou, who is, arguably, the most competent character in the novel. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Kelly, is also there, occupying the “queen room”. His many unemployed, or minimally employed, friends also hang around the Lodge – unless, that is, there is a surf. And, he has elderly parents, irascible father Ron, who is living, unwillingly, in aged care due to having terminal kidney failure, and mother Norma, “a model for pressing forward without an inward glance”. But, the centre of it all is Gordon, and he is floundering. He has no money, and is marooned by a secret concerning his brother’s death over 40 years ago. The problem is that he is likeable, “a good man” in fact, and people want to help him, even at risk to themselves.
And, of course, there are the bullies – including his soon-to-be ex-step-mother-in-law Leonie who pulls the family financial strings for her own purposes, Council heavy Frontal, and “big man” about town, Tony Eastaugh. None of these want to help Gordon save The Lodge, and thus Bluebird itself.
It’s a complicated story of financial skulduggery set against personal insecurities, jealousies, and just plain ineffectuality, but the novel holds together largely because of its language and humour, Knox’s ability to skewer Australian culture, and his insight into human nature. I loved for example his comment on Gordon and Kelly’s marriage:
Habit, over-familiarity, neglect and inaction killed more lives than cancer.
Change is what I’m ready for (Gordon)
Marriage, however, is not his main target. Rather, it’s Australian men and the way they are letting the side down. Bluebird’s men tend to be ambitious power-hungry bullies or ineffectual past-focused also-rans. There are few in the middle. Overall, it’s the women who are decisive, which is not to say that they are all “better” people. Knox’s attitude to most of his characters seems to be one of frustrated affection. These people, he seems to be saying, are hanging onto the past, but
The past was worn out, not as solid as it was made out to be. Past its best.
The ending, when it comes, is cataclysmic, but not hopeless. Knox wants us to believe that people – that Australia, which seems also to be wallowing in its past – can change. It’s not that the past is all bad, but it shouldn’t drive us.
Introducing the Last Part, Bird’s eye says
This is not the outsider’s story. This is the story of those who are in the middle yet on the margin, the hole in the doughnut, so close to the centre that they have fallen into the void.
The question is, can we get ourselves out? Bluebird is a warm and funny but also biting read. Recommended.
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)