Book Review – They’re a Weird Mob – Nino Culotta

I discovered ‘youse’ is actually a word!

My parents used to use youse as in ‘all of youse’, and even wrote it in handwritten notes. And like Nino, the main character in They’re a Weird Mob, my parents were born in Europe.

Early in life I had to teach myself the difference between borrow and lend. I often heard ‘I will borrow it to you’ and finally worked out this is not how it’s said. Which brings me to what I liked about Nino. His grasp of English sounded educated yet slightly wrong, but as a kid of parents whose first language wasn’t English, it all sounded perfect.

This book is a time capsule of the late 1950s, the era in which it was written. People are standing on podiums in Sydney’s Central Business District spruiking their beliefs. There is bushland where men and boy scouts go camping and, in this novel, hunt rabbits. Neighbours pop in uninvited and stay to party, and you don’t mind. And you feed guests tea and toast, which I assume is not made with a pop up toaster.

It’s a light read.

I read the first half of Nino’s adventures in one morning. He has been sent to Australia from Italy by the magazine he works for. His assignment is to write about this country as many Italians are migrating here. In order to understand us, he takes on a job as a brickies labourer, immersing himself in blue-collar culture. So there is a clash between how he speaks English and the short hand and slurring of words his new mates use.

My father once said that Australians make the best friends. Their sense of camaraderie was the strongest he ever encountered. I have friends around the world so I don’t necessarily agree, but what I’m trying to say here is, like Nino, my dad found the same ‘mateship’ in friends who worked hard for a living. This is another reason this novel resonated with me.

My parents arrived here separately in the 50s and had similar experiences, such as how bland the food was in that era. Plus, my dad helped build houses for his in-laws and, later in life, built houses we lived in.

So, was there anything I didn’t like about this book?

Early in the second half I started getting bored. There is no real plot here, just observational scenes as recorded by a fictional journalist. A wedding that takes place in Ashfield, a Sydney suburb literally just up the road from my home, is merely reported on. I was hoping this would be a scene within itself. A chance for true comedy.

Yet more of the same things that happen in the first half of the book, continue in the second half until one day, Nino decides it’s time to get married. He isn’t dating. He listens to advice on where to look for a wife and ends up in Manly. He meets a woman who is a welcome relief in the story. A new character with a strong personality.

But that is the chance you take on something written in the past.

The story conventions like ‘show, don’t tell’ that we live by today, may not apply. And we shouldn’t judge a work through modern techniques, as I just did in the previous paragraphs. As I said earlier, this is a time capsule of a novel, written as a bet by John O’Grady. It was a best seller. In the 60s it became a successful film.

oz.Typewriter: January 2016
Author, John O’Grady (Getty Images)

The author credited as the writer of this novel is fictional character, Nino Culotta. People believed it was penned by an actual Italian migrant until a journalist threatened to expose the real author. When he did, no one cared.

I understand why. No migrant at the time reading this would disagree with Nino’s observations of Australians, or more the point, locals in Sydney’s western suburbs. (For those not reading from Australia, our beach side suburbs are east in Sydney)

Three and a half stars.

From the film version. Nino has just arrived and learns about schooners and middies.

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