AFL

In becoming a writer, Brandon Jack studies Charles Bukowski and Patti Smith with the same dedication as he trains for the AFL – but struggles with the final ruthlessness of memoir. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

‘I wanted to offer something new’: Brandon Jack on becoming a writer

Footballer turned writer Brandon Jack.
Credit: Maya Cook

This is part three of a three-part series.

In his small Sydney apartment, former Sydney Swans player Brandon Jack started writing a novel. Though only in his mid-20s, he had already retired from one career, but with the same commitment he once gave to football, he now gave – with more love and less ambivalence – to writing.

His apartment is a small den of bohemianism: messy with guitars, cheap wine and pouches of tobacco. In a small tin are some tabs of acid, and on his desk is a typewriter – an actual typewriter – which he swears by for its sound and its imperfections. There are piles of books: Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson; Joan Didion and Simone de Beauvoir.

Jack wanted to write, but not about football. He was insistent on that. He told his publisher he’d refer to his career only slightly, and wanted no mention of his past in the promotion of the prospective book. Then he rediscovered his old footy journals. He read them, painfully, then threw out the old manuscript. “I came away from that manuscript feeling like, you know, I just hadn’t contributed anything,” he says. “That I hadn’t created something that no one else could do. I wanted to offer something new.”

With the same attention he gave to footy training, Jack gave to studying memoirs – there were very few decent sports ones, so he started reading others: Charles Bukowski and Patti Smith’s resonated, and he began counting the number of words per line, paragraph, page – trying to derive the beats and rhythms of the writing he admired. He did this obsessively – it was the 4am yoga mat from his earlier days as an elite athlete.

“Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful,” George Orwell wrote. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”

On these grounds, there’s much to trust in Jack’s recently released memoir, 28 – and more so for his detailing the quiet humiliations and boredom that comprise a life, even a professional athlete’s. This isn’t accidental: Jack has made a commitment to honesty, to art.

In enviably plain and propulsive writing, Jack details the petty vandalism and puking on beds. We learn that Jack and his mates rarely drink – it’s always more violent than that. Alcohol is heaved, sculled, shotgunned. Empties aren’t binned but collected in mounds or taped together as “wands”. Furniture is rarely sat upon but thrown, used as a stage, or transformed into a bed after a boozy blackout.

This numbing excess is not exclusive to footy players, but Jack has almost a grim commitment to detailing it. It can become as tedious to read as it was presumably to experience, but it’s documented without pride, nor offered as spectacle or a set-up for cheap contrition. It is what it is – nothing to celebrate, nor something to be glossed over or avoided. Jack offers these details as a writer, not a star seeking forgiveness.

It’s commendable, and Jack’s an obviously talented writer – but ultimately, he shirks the tackle. The equivalent here of that Nick Riewoldt mark – a spectacle of suicidal commitment, that could have as easily resulted in paraplegia as it did in mythic honour – would have been a more direct examination of his pained relationship with his parents, which seems even more complicated and sadly fraught than his relationship with football.

I admire Jack’s choice: he doesn’t want to cause more pain, or to speak for others. But in not causing pain, he causes confusion for the reader by withholding the context of his various eruptions of self-destruction. A text message from one brother inspires an intense and messy bout of drinking, but we don’t know what the message was – or even if it was just the fact of receiving a message that triggered the destructive binge. In another scene, Jack describes the sudden appearance of his father at one of his games – and then suddenly, in the car park, he’s grabbing his father’s throat with one hand, making a fist with the other, and warning him to never return. There’s no context and it’s utterly disorienting.

I ask Jack if he knows whether his parents have read the book and if they’ve been in contact since. Understandably, he declines to answer. “I’m proud of what I wrote, and I’m glad I did it,” he says. “And I’m happy to have received so many messages from people who are also estranged from their parents, and for whom the book resonated. But I don’t want it to be an ongoing focus in the media.”

Jack’s book is remarkable for its introspection and its unfussy insistence on his own humiliations as a gifted but fringe athlete, but a man is not an island and in rendering his family relations so obliquely we’re often left with a series of incomprehensible fits of pain and alcoholic self-medication – a description of a crash site without the details of the black box.

Jack’s written a very good book, but to have written a great one would have required far more ruthlessness than he possesses. Towards the end of 28, Jack muses that “To be an artist is to float in space and never come down”, but his own book should disabuse him of this romance. To write a serious memoir, as Jack has, is not to float in space but to dwell, with heightened consciousness, on the ground with everyone else – all the while making hard and ugly choices about disclosure and discretion; honesty and betrayal. To write about your life – or someone else’s – is to automatically compromise something. And ultimately, nothing – not sport, or art, or family – is transcendent.

This is the third in a three-part series on football player Brandon Jack.

Read part one: Brandon Jack exposes the ugly side of football.

Read part two: Brandon Jack's commitment decreases as his bitterness grows.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2021 as "Excess all areas".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.