Sto­ry­teller signs off with flour­ish

Jack of Di­a­monds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce Peter Pierce

FOR Aus­tralia’s best­selling au­thor Bryce Courte­nay, his 21st pub­lished work, Jack of Di­a­monds, is his last bow. He died on Novem­ber 22. Ill­ness pre­vented the book’s de­liv­ery to his pub­lish­ers at Pen­guin last year, but this year it was com­pleted at the stan­dard Courte­nay length of 700-plus easy-to-read pages.

In­deed Courte­nay, de­spite suf­fer­ing from ter­mi­nal stom­ach can­cer, has gone fur­ther. A 15-page epi­logue out­lines what would have hap­pened to his hero (who be­gan life as Jack Spayd in the Toronto slum of Cab­bage­town in the early 1920s) and ‘‘ his off­sider, the in­cor­ri­gi­ble, at­ten­tion-seek­ing Di­a­mond Jim’’ (a gar­ru­lous African grey par­rot) had there been time for a se­quel.

This is a valiant touch by Courte­nay, one that is typ­i­cal of the largesse with which he de­liv­ered sto­ries to the world, and to Aus­tralia in par­tic­u­lar, since his first, semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, novel The Power of One in 1988. In that book, the adult Peekay re­flects on his dif­fi­cult but ul­ti­mately tri­umphant youth in South Africa in the 30s and 40s (Courte­nay was born there in 1933). Sim­i­larly, it is the adult Jack Spayd who — in the novel and its suc­ces­sor in minia­ture in the epi­logue — rec­ol­lects his ad­ven­tures across three con­ti­nents, up to some time in the 70s.

Courte­nay has packed that life with in­ci­dent. Young Spayd and his lov­ing and re­silient mother are bru­talised by Jack’s fa­ther, a drunken and un­faith­ful garbage col­lec­tor. One rare act of kind­ness by his fa­ther gives Jack his break. This is the be­lated birth­day gift of a har­mon­ica that al­lows him to re­alise his gifts as a mu­si­cian.

A ca­reer as a clas­si­cal con­cert pi­anist is aban­doned for jazz and the com­pany of black mu­si­cians. The boy is men­tored by the owner of Toronto’s Jazz Ware­house, Floss By­att By Bryce Courte­nay Vik­ing, 711pp, $45 (HB) (Miss Frost­bite), and taught pi­ano by her former school­mate, the acer­bic Mona Bates.

A master pat­tern of Courte­nay’s fic­tion is ev­i­dent. This is the rise of an in­di­vid­ual through some luck, but prin­ci­pally by the ex­er­cise of daunt­less will. Jack is ‘‘ by na­ture a loner’’ and is not too trou­bled by mod­esty (‘‘with my quick wit and easy man­ner’’). His tale of as­sid­u­ous self-im­prove­ment, of the march of the mind, is some­thing of which its sanc­ti­mo­nious 19th-cen­tury ad­vo­cate Sa­muel Smiles would have ap­proved.

Yet in com­mon with other Courte­nay heroes, Jack is not so nar­row. He has a tal­ent for find­ing the good­ness in oth­ers, how­ever shady or dam­aged, and what­ever colour they might be. And, as he grate­fully ac­knowl­edges: ‘‘ I would never fully free my­self from car­ing women step­ping in to help me.’’ Af­ter the women in Toronto, th­ese will in­clude a Moose Jaw (a city in Saskatchewan) pros­ti­tute and would-be chanteuse, Juicy Fruit (to whom Jack loses his vir­gin­ity af­ter a raf­fle), and a for­mi­da­ble Las Ve­gas casino boss, Mrs Brid­gett Fuller.

For all its con­ti­nen­tal and lin­guis­tic sprawl, Jack of Di­a­monds is care­fully pat­terned. Per­sis­tently, and by ne­ces­sity, Jack Spayd uproots him­self, some­times with an en­forced change of iden­tity. First he takes the ad­vice of his friend, the old black jazz player Joe Hockey (Courte­nay has plenty of cheeky fun with names in the book) and goes ‘‘ scuf­fin’’ — that is, he sets out ‘‘ to find my way as a man and a mu­si­cian’’ by leav­ing Toronto to play pi­ano.

He trav­els to Moose Jaw, where — fate­fully — ‘‘I took my first step on my way to be­com­ing ob­sessed with poker’’. Three poker games and their dan­ger­ous af­ter­maths punc­tu­ate the novel, much as Jack avers (con­tra­dict­ing his pre­vi­ous ad­mis­sion) that ‘‘ if poker was an ad­dic­tion, then mu­sic was an over­whelm­ing ob­ses­sion’’. Res­cues and flights fol­low th­ese games, first in Moose Jaw, then Las Ve­gas (where he of­fends the Mob), fi­nally in the copperbelt of North­ern Rhode­sia, where the novel leaves him, fugi­tive but un­con­quered.

Courte­nay al­ways favoured large his­tor­i­cal back­drops for the striv­ing of his main characters. (Re­cently, much of this re­search was done by his brother-in-law, Bruce Gee.) In Jack of Di­a­monds, Courte­nay gives us the De­pres­sion, the vic­tims of which were ‘‘ swept up like a pile of dirt into a hope­less, help­less heap of use­less hu­man­ity’’; World War II, in which, as a med­i­cal or­derly, Jack won a Mil­i­tary Medal at the dis­as­trous Cana­dian at­tempt to in­vade Dieppe in 1942; Las Ve­gas in the 40s, ‘‘ a brassy town of tran­sients’’, as Jewish and Mafia mob­sters be­gin to set up their casi­nos; and a cop­per mine in Africa (where Courte­nay also pur­port­edly worked as a young man).

De­spite this his­tor­i­cal sweep, Courte­nay al­ways re­turns to his main game, in this case the vi­cis­si­tudes of Jack Spayd, his loves and losses. There are dan­ger­ous en­coun­ters — such as with the malev­o­lent, brain-dam­aged gang­ster Sammy Schis­chka — and oth­ers that are amorous: one of the long­est sex scenes in Aus­tralia fic­tion, be­tween Jack and Juicy Fruit, and one of the fun­ni­est (while mak­ing a get­away in a laun­dry bas­ket), with Mrs Fuller. Jack will also sire the world’s first su­per­model, but that is a story for the epi­logue.

As pas­sages in his lengthy ac­knowl­edg­ments show, Courte­nay was al­ways a skilled and re­lent­less self-fash­ioner — as were Charles Dick­ens and Mark Twain, among other best­selling au­thors. All three hap­pily sought pub­lic plat­forms for the pro­mo­tion of their work. Courte­nay’s of­ten re­it­er­ated ac­count of him­self has this dec­la­ra­tion at its core: ‘‘ As long as I can re­call I have al­ways had sto­ries do­ing gymnastics in my head, and de­mand­ing an au­di­ence.’’

Sign­ing off with ‘‘ my warm­est wishes to you all’’, Courte­nay as­sumes an in­ti­mate, nearly per­sonal con­nec­tion with his read­ers. He states, poignantly: ‘‘ It is my fer­vent wish that, when the time comes, I may be re­mem­bered by those whom I en­ter­tained as a damn good sto­ry­teller.’’

He de­serves a word more. Out­side Toronto’s Jazz Ware­house there is a warn­ing. When you en­ter, ‘‘ you be­come colour blind’’. That is Jack’s way and it was al­ways Courte­nay’s. His books may in­ci­den­tally have pro­moted racial tol­er­ance among his many read­ers, who would then have this to thank him for, along with decades of en­ter­tain­ment.

Bryce Courte­nay, pic­tured in Septem­ber, was colour blind’ in his writ­ing

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