“We don’t have the characters now that we had in the past.”
That was said by a work colleague back in the 90s who was talking about how younger generations didn’t have adventures any more, like people had in the past. So, they were watered down versions of themselves. They hadn’t built themselves to be the characters they were meant to be.
This conversation kept coming to mind as I read Johnno, David Malouf’s first novel. It was first published in 1975, yet talks about Brisbane at a time it didn’t resemble a city, during the 1940s and 50s. I was surprised to find a major park housed animals in cages for people to just look at as they went on their way, back in this period.
Dante tells about his friendship with Johnno in first person.
Although, they are never close throughout this whole tale, meeting up sporadically both in Brisbane and later in Europe. I felt Johnno was nothing more than a colourful acquaintance. At one stage he has a girlfriend who Dante gets to know quite well, and it’s these small scenes with her which feel more personal.
Throughout the book, Johnno’s behaviour is odd. He stands outside the classroom being a pain to the science teacher. He makes Dante visit brothels just so Johnno can cause drama, which eventually gets them barred from these establishments. Yet, it’s this period of their lives where I felt Johnno was the most settled.
Then there’s the Europe years. Johnno has returned from years in Africa earning good money, then is stuck in a seedy and violent version of Paris when Dante comes to stay with him. He wants to leave and tries to talk Dante into moving to other Euro destinations, but nothing comes of it.
This is why the conversation about ‘characters’ kept coming to mind.
I can think back to my own school years of the 70s and 80s, and there were people like Johnno around. As society gentrified, so did potential Johnnos.
But I also believe if Johnno was alive today, a psychiatrist would have him on pills. His behaviour sometimes felt ADHD or perhaps another diagnosis where irrational thinking is a symptom.
In the end, this examines how much we actually know someone.
To Dante, Johnno is obviously an enigma. Dante’s own desires never match Johnno’s. Johnno lives on the edge. Johnno is irrational. Johnno finds joy in making trouble. Johnno is seeking friendship in an abstract way. Dante is aiming for a safe, yet often boring, life.
It’s this unknowing quality of who the title character actually is, which fuels this novel. Dante never knows him well enough to give the reader insight. Yet for me, this was a strange page turner. I didn’t devour the book, but it often called to me to finish it.