Due to author Jon Doust, contemporary Australian literature is now blessed with an outstanding new boys-to-men novel that belongs in the tradition begun with Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1889.
I spent years before adulthood absorbed in the story of Tom Brown and other books like Louisa Alcott’s Little Men, HH Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I loved those stories and on reflection I think they gave me language and concepts with which to deal with the exigencies of growing up as a boy, often in all-male settings. And later, as a parent and a school-teacher, I still found in them a rich trove of archetypal characters, themes and situations that helped me to adopt a fruitful perspective on family and professional life.
Jack Muir, the narrator-protagonist in Jon Doust’s novel, also draws great succour from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He reads the book early in his own horrid years as a boarder at Grammar School in Perth. He tells us how it sustains him in that environment.
If it wasn’t for Tom Brown I might not have made it through. Next to Jesus, Tom Brown’s Schooldays has to be the greatest story ever told. Dad gave it to me one night when I was at home in the holidays … I didn’t sleep that night until Tom Brown had finished his schooling and gone on to Oxford and learnt in the summer of 1842 that his great mentor and headmaster Dr Arnold had died. I cried. And I longed for one more crack at Flashman, the evil, bullying bastard who tormented all small boys and those who protected them.
Coincidentally, some months before reading Boy on a Wire I returned to the Tom Brown story for the first time in more than fifty years. I was amazed at how much that book still moved me. One scene that still has the most profound effect on me comes near the end of the book. Tom is talking with young Arthur who is recovering from his near-fatal fever and their conversation turns very deep. Don’t ask me to explain now the power this scene has for me: I might attempt to do that one day after much more reflection.
But for present purposes I’ll mention a statement made in that scene by Tom Brown. He is nearing the end of Fifth Form and the two boys are reflecting on their life at Rugby. Tom lists what he wants to achieve and take away from the school at the end of Sixth Form, and then adds what he wants to leave behind.
“I want to leave behind me,” said Tom, speaking slow, and looking much moved, “the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy, or turned his back on a big one.”
It’s the sort of statement that might have come from the mouth of Doust’s young Jack—except that his language would probably be more earthy, in a mid-twentieth century Australian way, and sizzling with anger.
Jack encounters Tom’s Flashman in many guises at his own school, along with sanctimonious hypocrisy and cruelty in the teachers. Repeatedly in his narration he refers to Hughes’ nineteenth century novel as he lives out his own variations on its themes, often saved only by his quick tongue and gift for clowning.
Jack’s difficult family relationships form another important strand in this deeply moving—and often hilarious—story. Following a diagnosis by their doctor in Jack’s infancy, his parents put many of his problems down to Pink Disease, a serious condition said to be caused by mercury in babies’ teething powders. They teach him to eat salt as a remedy.
One can hear in Jack Muir an echo of Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s adolescent boy in Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s story occurred some years before Jack’s, and in the USA rather than Australia, but there are fascinating parallels worthy of exploration. There is in Jack, however, none of the whining attitude that is an irritating trait of Holden.
Boy on a Wire is a superb novel, soaked in humour and pathos, and raising urgent questions about Australian society and humanity at large. The prose is magnificent, simply because you don’t think of it as prose: it is a voice, ringing truly into your ear with the vernacular and candour of an Aussie adolescent.
Jon Doust has given us a novel worthy of a position in the canon of boys-growing-up literature, right up there with Hughes, Salinger, and Golding. The story is very much about boys behaving badly, with all the coarse language and anatomical details that involves. If you’re a parent you may have qualms about your lad reading it. But I believe you should give it to him. And read it yourself.
Boy on a Wire is available as a paperback published by Fremantle Press. I read it as an e-book on my Kindle, downloaded from