Malcolm Knox, The Life (Allen & Unwin 2011)
Before the Book Group met: I knew The Life was about a surfer, based to some extent on a real person (as spelled out in an interesting article by Nick Carroll here). I knew that it also drew on Malcolm Knox’s own fairly recent experience as a surfer. Now, unless you count the pleasant and instructive experience of copy-editing a book of essays on surfing and surf culture a couple of years ago, the closest I’ve been to riding a surfboard is to have broken a wrist the first time I rode downhill on a skateboard. Oh, and Peter Drouyn was two years behind me at boarding school, and I once had a friend who said things were gnarly. So no matter how many people recommended The Life, I would have given it a miss, as I have Tim Winton’s Breath, if it wasn’t for the Book Group. And so but yeah I have yet another reason to be grateful to the group.
I’m writing this a day after finishing the book [and about a month before the twice postponed meeting], and the voice of Dennis Keith – DK, the narrator and main character, who occasionally starts a sentence with a string of conjunctions a bit like the last sentence in my first paragraph – is still echoing in my head. He’s a wonderful character, overweight, approaching 50, living with his mother, socially incompetent and suffering from some kind of mental chaos. But once he was the world champion surfer, a genius on the waves. A double tale unfolds – the story of events leading up to his mental implosion 30 years earlier, and what transpires after the arrival of a young woman he calls his BFO – short for Bi Fricken Ographer. There’s a central love story and a violent death, but the main power of the book for me is in the world created in its language, and though I gather there’s some controversy about the way DK is recognisable in the surfing community as a version of a still-living surfing legend, for outsiders like me there’s a feel of authenticity that probably has something to do with not having moved too far from actual history.
After the group: We met last night. Malcolm Knox is a friend of one of our members, and came to the meeting as a special guest. As a result, we stayed pretty much on topic all night, even though two of us, who arrived late, had been to the annual opening to the public of the Egyptian Room of the Petersham Masonic Hall, which would usually have been a major distraction from the book of the night.
One of the guys has been a keen surfer all his life, and knows an awful lot about the parts of the real world that the novel relates to. Others have done some surfing. To most of us the surfing world was pretty much a closed book. We’d all enjoyed the book, and I think it’s true to say that we all loved the chance to talk about it with the author. He was completely useless when asked to clarify the ending – he’s written a version where the end was clear, but it didn’t work because DK could never have got things that clear in his head, so he had to rewrite it to its present opacity. Sadly, this means that he doesn’t know who dunnit any more than any careful reader. Apart from that, he seemed happy to be quizzed about the process of writing, and rewriting, about the thinking behind a number of key decisions, about anything at all really, and we were pretty happy to do the quizzing.
Even though I count a number of brilliant writers among my friends, I’m still a boy from North Queensland who didn’t meet a Published Writer until I was 20 years old (the poet R D Murphy, aka Brother Elgar FMS), and I was very impressed by Malcolm’s generosity in joining us like this. He said he feels a sense of responsibility – if people are prepared to read his books the least he can do is sit down and have a meal with them, and anyhow he’d rather talk to eight people who have actually read it than 300 who’ve come to his talk at a festival because they couldn’t get into the one they really wanted. I hope he enjoyed the evening as much as I did.