The Life

Malcolm Knox

The Life
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The Life

Malcolm Knox

He looked into the Pacific and the Pacific looked back into him.

The Life tells the story of former-world-champion Australian surfer, Dennis Keith, from inside the very heart of the fame and madness that is ‘The Life’.

Now bloated and paranoid, Keith is holed up in his mother’s retirement village, shuffling to the shop for a Pine-Lime Splice every day, barely existing behind his aviator sunnies and crazy OCD rules, and trying not to think about the waves he’d made his own and the breaks he once ruled like a god. Years before he’d been robbed of the world title that had his name on it - and then drugs, his brother, and the disappearance and murder of his girlfriend and had done the rest. Out of the blue, a young would-be biographer comes knocking and stirs up memories Dennis thought he’d buried. It takes Dennis a while to realise that she’s not there to write his story at all.

Daring, ambitious, dazzling, The Life is also as real as it gets - a searing, beautiful novel about fame and ambition and the price that must sometimes be paid for reaching too high.

Review

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.

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