A few weeks back I was driving home from the morning school and shopping run listening to Richard Fidler’s ‘Conversations’ on the radio. I always love the show, but on this occasion he was interviewing William McInnes – the popular Australian actor who is now staking a solid claim as a respected writer of fiction. I was never much of a fan of McInnes’ jocular blokiness in earlier TV appearances such as Blue Heelers and Sea Change. My head was turned later on by a moving performance alongside Justine Clarke in the intensely beautiful Look Both Ways and, in huge contrast, an inspired comic turn as Sandy Freckle in Kath and Kim. As McInnes’ work has matured and the roles offered to him expanded, he is proving himself to be a far more complex figure than I probably ever gave him credit for. If I needed any more convincing of McInnes’ emotional depth and artistic integrity, Fidler’s interview sealed the deal. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone who constructs themselves as a ‘typical Aussie bloke’ speak so eloquently about love, family and the meaning of life. The tears rolled so freely I was probably a traffic hazard!
I was reminded of this last night as I was finishing the last pages of The Laughing Clowns … in tears. This is the story of Peter Kennedy – a development consultant from Melbourne sent to the Pickersgill Peninsula, just north of Brisbane, to assess some prime real estate (the local Showgrounds). Kennedy is a big man – literally and in terms of his perceived lot in life – who leads a comfortably middle class existence in the leafy suburbs. He has nothing, in particular, to be unhappy about and yet he is not enjoying his life. He loves his wife and his kids, but he has trouble showing it. He is of a generation of Australian men for whom effusive interactions are awkward and unnecessary. He doesn’t like to be uncomfortable.
For much of the novel, Kennedy made me feel like someone was sitting on my chest; he is suffocated by his own self-censorship. People around him regularly refer to him as a ‘funny one’ because he is so hard to read. He can’t laugh freely, nor tell someone he loves them, without second-guessing the action. Pickersgill, however, is his old stomping ground. It’s the place where he grew up, and where his extended family still lives alongside many of his old school mates and their families. It is a place chock-a-block with memories, which will fly at him like pelican poop as he crosses the bridge from the mainland to this beachside reckoning. It will force him to take a long hard look at the way he expresses himself.
McInnes (and I, as it happens) grew up on the Redcliffe Peninsula, just north of Brisbane. Fictional Pickersgill is not Redcliffe, but you’re unlikely to see them in the same room. Anyone from that part of the world will feel a sting of resonance as the mature Peter drives from Brisbane airport towards the ghosts of his youth. It is easy to think a town you’ve left behind has been frozen in time during your absence, but, since Peter left, there have been big changes on the Peninsula. Before leaving Melbourne, Kennedy and a colleague joke that Pickersgill is a town of yokels – where ‘Toranas go to die’. Being on the outskirts of the city, it traditionally attracted a combination of lower socio-economic families and fishermen, alongside a showy minority with the money for beachside mansions. One of the first things Peter notices, as he sits in the crawling traffic between Brisbane Airport and the Peninsula’s access bridge, is a distinct lack of Toranas.
Pickersgill bears a pretty close resemblance to Redcliffe, but it could really be any one of many seaside towns around Australia where the fishermen’s shacks have been bulldozed for high rise holiday apartments, and the crusty public bars now have polished wooden decks and kids-eat-free-on-Tuesdays. Even the local bakery is all wagyu beef pies and coconut water, alongside the custard tarts. It’s an area in flux between the old ways and the new – and it operates as a fine metaphor for Kennedy himself.
This is a story that unfolds gently. There is very little action, but lengthy explorations of influential episodes of Peter’s life. Anyone who has ever revisited their home town, or gone along to a school reunion or a family wedding will know the unique pleasure and pain involved in memory. The mere mention of Coon cheese or the smell of luncheon meat (itself one of the book’s running metaphors) sends you ricocheting back 20 years to relive the sounds, the smells, the harshest or kindest words of the people who’ve populated your life. Why is it that two adult siblings can annoy each other with the most benign conversation? Why is that you can love your parents so much it hurts but can’t eat a meal in their house without rolling your eyes at their habits? This is the stuff of life, and love, and family. It’s all, as Peter says in a typical display of emotional abandon, “a bit strange”.
Growing up in Redcliffe, even those of us who lived there referred to it as ‘Bevcliffe’ – home to a large and colourful population of ‘bevans’ (Queenslander for ‘bogans’) and useful only as an indicator of a lifestyle to which one never wanted to return. Like Peter Kennedy, many of my friends and I couldn’t wait to leave for university or jobs or overseas travel. Also like Peter, my parents stayed because they could see the immense potential and beauty of the place, which was obscured by my greasy teenage attitude. Now, as an adult who’s lived all around the world, I’ve chosen to move back to the same area (well, not quite the Peninsula, but nearby) and I can’t get enough of the parks, family friendly shopping and seaside fun with my own growing family. As Peter Kennedy learns – places, like people, can evolve.
McInnes’ symbolism can be very heavy-handed, and his nostalgic wanderings may not hold the interest of anyone who prefers a good car chase. Some of the language is an anachronistic brand of ‘Strayan that you rarely hear anymore in the ‘burbs. Some pop cultural references stick out as self-conscious inclusions, and some characters err on the side of caricature. But, any criticism I might like to make about this not being my usual cup of tea is pretty much voided by the fact that I cried like a baby at the conclusion! Resist as you might, McInnes knows how to tell a story and a very touching, very human one at that.
The Laughing Clowns is published by Hachette Australia.