Coming of age behind closed doors
Me & Rory Macbeath
By Richard Beasley Hachette, 371pp, $29.99
AT one point in Richard Beasley’s animated and often confronting new novel, Jake asks his mother, ‘‘ Do we . . . Do we live in a weird street?’’ It’s a question that encapsulates Me & Rory Macbeath, for much of what happens that is perplexing, unpleasant or awful in middle-class Rose Avenue — and in Jake’s city, 1970s Adelaide — takes place behind closed doors.
Beasley, who grew up in Adelaide, is a Sydney writer and barrister. His two previous novels, Hell Has Harbour Views (2001) and The Ambulance Chaser (2004), were biting satires about the legal profession. Although both were funny and smart, Me & Rory Macbeath is far better. While it retains Beasley’s sardonic take on life and the law, it achieves a richer tone, one that draws together adroitly a potentially messy medley of themes and a shifting mood. It also has a first-class fart scene.
The novel’s opening — like Rose Avenue — is deceptively sedate. As Jake, who narrates the book as an adult looking back, puts it, ‘‘ Around the time we turned twelve, an age of vague yet secure optimism dawned on us.’’ When Rory Macbeath and his family arrive from Scotland and take up residence — in the red-brick house at the end of a street of bluestone and sandstone homes — Jake and his best mate Robbie invite him into their world.
Initially, Jake views Rory with some suspicion, not least because his very presence ‘‘ disrespected the rule that three is often a crowd in backyard or front-yard cricket’’. But Rory wins him over with his toughness, his loyalty and his fishing skills.
The three boys become inseparable — although Rory never once invites the others into his house.
Beyond endless summers and his mates, Jake’s story revolves around the politics of the street, both within and between households; his switch to a posher, god-fearing school; and, most of all, his relationship with his mum, Harry, a left-leaning barrister.
As the story shifts into more troubling territory — and as the boys must navigate the perplexing and sometimes vicious adult world — Beasley melds gentle humour and edgier satire. Although complex political and social undercurrents propel the story, Beasley avoids preaching, or shoving context down the reader’s throat. He deals at length and with considerable subtlety with male misbehaviour: the boorish, the intimidatory, the violent.
Beasley offers a magnificent portrait of Harry, a single mother and a chain-smoking, red-wine-guzzling champion of the innocent until proven guilty. Occasionally, courtroom scenes fall a little flat, despite Harry’s expertise, passion and theatrics. But at other times — at key moments — the courtroom provides some of the novel’s most riveting passages.
Rory is also a memorable character, a tough and brave kid with a difficult home life. As Rory’s tenuous world unravels, Beasley unpeels the boy’s vulnerabilities and examines his complicated relationships with his family. In contrast to Rory, Robbie seems a little out of focus and, as the story unfolds, he fades from view. While the adult Jake, as narrator, makes pertinent observations about how childhood friendships ebb, there remains a sense of a dangling thread, as if at a certain point Robbie just needs to get out of the way of the plot. The same goes for Robbie’s dad, a policeman who at one point has a pivotal role in the story. In the main, though, the large supporting cast are a convincing lot.
For all this novel’s many qualities, Beasley’s principal achievement is Jake’s self-portrait.