Storyteller signs off with flourish
Jack of Diamonds
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