Bluebird, the setting of Malcolm Knox’s latest novel, is an insular little community on the coastal periphery of “Ocean City”, a wink-wink stand-in for Sydney. The problem with Bluebird, and it’s mostly a problem for the middle-aged white male kidults at the centre of the novel, is that it’s changing. Outsiders are moving in, the Chinese are buying up, and people who’ve lived there only five years maddeningly claim to be locals as they drop in on waves.
A smothering and lie-soaked nostalgia clouds Bluebird’s clear skies. At the heart of the story are two “shambling ruins”. One is Gordon, haunted into passivity by a childhood trauma with a mystery at its centre. Then there’s The Lodge, the slowly crumbling house he lives in, which clings precariously to the escarpment overlooking the beach, an obvious metaphor for its tenant. Gordon shares The Lodge with his resentful ex-wife Kelly, awkward son Ben, lesbian goddaughter Lou and a daily wash-up of fairly interchangeable old mates. Gordon’s father, a nursing-home breakout artist, and the other old men in the story are cantankerous schemers with sphincter issues and dark pasts. The older women, tough as acrylic nails, have their own agendas. Lou, capable, wise and compassionate, appears to be Bluebird’s only fully functioning adult.
Knox’s sixth novel continues his literary exploration of contemporary Australian masculinity. A coming-of-age story for the arrested-development crew, it suggests that even the most inert of men can grow and find redemption if they can be made to deal with the past. The novel, which hints at but skirts around Bluebird’s murky racial politics, romps along in places, and stumbles in others. Expository passages in the voice of Kelly’s stepmother, who is somehow also a seagull, are the least convincing. As social satire, moreover, Bluebird often wipes out on the reefs of cliché and stereotype. At the beach cafe, handsome Italian baristas flirt with the “middle-aged lycra” queueing to pay for their daily dose of “accented sweet talk”. The English of “Japan Ned”, a long-time resident and surfer, consists almost entirely of “Shit out” and “Good out”. All I wanted was some hint that the “lycra” might be in on the joke, or for Ned to reveal that he was knowingly playing the exotic punchline – or for any of the characters so jealously protective of the “old Bluebird” to recognise that not so long ago, it was their ancestors who’d dropped in on another mob’s waves.
Allen & Unwin, 496pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "Malcolm Knox, Bluebird".
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