Com­ing of age be­hind closed doors

Me & Rory Macbeath

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­trick Alling­ton

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.

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