The Life by Malcolm Knox
Malcolm Knox’s fourth novel is at once a departure from his established style and an extension of his preoccupying themes. A former sportswriter, Knox explored the inner world of elite sportsmen (cricketers) in his second novel, A Private Man. Sport and competition were again central to his third, Jamaica, which featured a group of friends competing in an endurance swimming race. Central to these novels – and his debut, Summerland – are finely tuned explorations of class and masculinity in contemporary Australia, and of the disparity between inner and outer lives as secrets brew beneath smooth surfaces.
The Life – which follows the varying fortunes of former world champion surfer Dennis Keith – contains all these elements. Yet, it’s a very different reading experience from Knox’s previous novels. His protagonists are usually from the urbane, educated upper middle-classes; until now, this has been mirrored in polished, sophisticated prose. But unreliable narrator Keith (“The Great DK”) and his brother Rod grew up “the poorest kids on the whole Goldie”, in a ramshackle Queenslander on the edge of a graveyard. Keith, though intelligent, is famously inarticulate (his catchphrase is “Yeah … but nah”). The result is spiky, roughly hewn prose, rich with surf slang and word play; often breaking into sets of sentences that read like a kind of poetry: “So you paddled/Your bucket hands/Your flipper feet/You paddled like a shark was after you.” Thus Knox expertly inhabits his character, who is idiosyncratic, deeply sensitive, equally aggressive, with a “poker machine head” that likes patterns and puzzles.
The Life is split into two parallel strands. The first is DK as a fifty-eight-year-old ruin living with his mother in a retirement village in his home town of Coolangatta – which has transformed from a country town to a surfing theme park, with himself as reluctant messiah. He’s being interviewed, in stages, by a young journalist he nicknames The BFO (“my Bi-Fricken-Ographer”). The second strand charts the eventful rise and fall of DK the legend. Somewhere in between is a doomed love story that ends in a girl’s brutal murder, the complex story of a bond between brothers (“Brothers, brotherly love, brothers at war”), a canny meditation on the double-edged sword of celebrity, and the slow revelation of the BFO’s hidden purpose. DK calls his life a “Jigsaw with too many missing pieces”. The reader’s task is to find those missing pieces and slot them into place. It’s not always easy, but it is deeply rewarding and utterly absorbing.
This review was originally published in Bookseller & Publisher magazine. Jo Case is editor of Readings Monthly and books editor of The Big Issue.