It is 1960 and high summer in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond. As if the heat’s not bad enough, the fire brigade is rushing from blaze to blaze and the coppers are out looking for young arsonist Keith Kavanagh, known in the tabloids as “The Torch”. The 12-year-old “Blayney boy” (we never learn his first name) has a self-imposed mission: to save Kavanagh from the juvenile criminals’ home by persuading him to surrender to an aunt up in Albury, on the boundary of their known world.
Narrated by young Blayney, the chase takes us up and down back lanes, stormwater drains and rail tunnels, in and out of the kitchens and front rooms of a local population still mostly Irish-origin Catholic working class, dotted with exotic New Australians. In the style of Mark Twain (the Yarra and the local baths serving as Mississippi), this enjoyable long read is a wry take on a milieu of not-very-successful adults from the viewpoint of a boy on the cusp of adolescence.
While Blayney has chaste stirrings, classmate Mona initiates his first pash. Blayney’s twin brother has recently died, his father has shot through to shack up with Mrs Bentley, young Kavanagh had been staying with them but returned the hospitality by burning their house down, and Mrs Blayney finds herself “pregnant” (as her son notes, the awkwardness emphasised by a word usually reserved for out-of-wedlock situations, while married women are “expecting”). They now live with Granddad, who makes his living from goods that fall off the back of a truck and who, while bitterly opposed to the DLP rats, is friends with the elderly Cardinal Daniel Mannix, a helpful contact when Blayney is in trouble with the Catholic brothers at school.
A bigger plot steadily comes into focus. Several adults are keen to find young Kavanagh also, but as a pathway to his father, an escapee from prison, and his mysterious briefcase of documents. ASIO agents, Commonwealth police in black Holdens, a Russian diplomat and a mysterious “Swedish” couple pop up. Readers of Peter Twohig’s highly popular The Cartographer may get the hang of the book sooner (this is a sequel) but it’s entertaining enough until the plot kicks in. Though it’s some time since he himself was a 12-year-old in the Richmond of 1960, attending a Catholic school, Twohig’s take on the locale and the vernacular is faultless. JF
HarperCollins, 480pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "Peter Twohig, The Torch".
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