Friday, September 26, 2014

Suburban Gothic in Sonya Hartnett's latest- 'Golden Boys'

A NEW Sonya Hartnett novel is a major literary event these days, and probably has been for a long time. When I read her books I am looking for a clever use of figurative language, and an opportunity to revisit some of those those dark, dark themes. GOLDEN BOYS is classic Hartnett, the Sonya Hartnett of SLEEPING DOGS ilk, the kind of writing and ideas that make me want to write to her, or visit her, and talk about these fascinating events and people that occur in her novels.

We have, once again, the mysterious suburbs, where dislocated families struggle to survive. I get the feeling S E Hinton is an early influence, but Hinton’s stories are sugar coated in comparison. Hartnett’s suburbs are more like the Maycomb County of To Kill a Mockingbird- nothing’s quite right, there is a subterranean unease that frightens and at the same time captivates its inhabitants.

In GOLDEN BOYS we have once again the troubled adults that inflict the consequence of their flawed personalities onto their siblings. Mr Jenson (Rex) provides his two young boys with lavish gifts- car racing games, swimming pool, fancy bikes- not out of a sense of indulged love for his kids, but rather as a magnet for their young male friends who he hopes will come to visit. There are some chilling episodes in the novel where he seems as keen as mustard to dry the wet boys off with a towel. He casts himself in some sort of heroic light- the wealthy dentist who would like to be the man who ‘could ease suffering when suffering was a person’s whole world’, and ironically is the instigator himself of a lot of suffering. He is first described as looking like ‘an action-movie actor.’ Rex is a fascinating character and he is at the heart of the novel. Hartnett is careful not to make a cardboard cut-out villain- with a subject like paedophilia, she easily could have. The unhappiness he provides Colt with is understated for a long time. He is all charm on the surface and even defends himself confidently from Joe Kiley’s loose charges. An innocent outsider could see Rex as an earnest family man. Any suspect actions on his behalf are subtle, and understated- like his fascination with Avery’s knee- and the novel is better for it. Mrs Jenson (Tabby) is as close to a non-entity as you might find, cosy, benign, as passive as her name suggests. Her lack of action or responsibility is criminal. The eldest boy has to take the total weight of his father’s dark secret. She does provide the reader with the scaringly ambiguous title of her husband as ‘the pied-piper.’

The other adults are the Kiley’s. Joe is a real problem. The sort of father that, when he comes home from his unfulfilled job as a printer, the whole house stiffens to see what sort of mood he will be in, specifically whether or not he will be drunk, and invariably violent. There is something powerful and complex about both fathers. At times they seem benign and friendly, but there is that menace underneath that calm veneer that threatens the lives of their whole families. Of the two, we might feel a little sorry for Joe. Away from alcohol and in better personal circumstances, he may be an ok father. We get a glimpse of this with his enthralling family stunt where he lights the petrol he stores in his mouth and roars like a dragon with real fire. Mrs Kiley –Elizabeth- is better than Tabby- she is a lot more earnest at protecting her own or other people’s children. When Joe’s physical menace is at its peak near the end of the novel, and he is about to use his fist (described as a ‘solid mallet’) on his daughter’s face, Elizabeth comes to life and says ‘Don’t you dare hit her!’, admirably pulling him back ‘with irresistible force.’ She also looks out for poor Declan who is not his father’s favourite. Elizabeth is so unhappy that she even advises her growing daughter not to get married, and more importantly, never to have children. I knew someone just like Joe, growing up, a father of close friends who lived across the road. For me, there was this ongoing palpable menace in the house, but I only felt it as a visitor- I didn’t have to live with it.

That leaves the children, and as in the case of many of Hartnett’s novels, they are interesting, and varied, and all have fascinating little personalities of their own. The Jenson boys are Colt (as in Coltrane) and Bastian. Colt is the closest thing to heroic status in the novel. He helps rescue Freya when she is at the mercy of her father. He takes the brunt of the blame for his father’s grubbiness in an awful, brutal encounter near the end of the story. He knows too much. He is smart, and that makes life depressingly difficult. His father constantly gives him the creeps. He makes a heartbreaking apology to Declan on behalf of his father, something a boy should never have to do. Colt was a very good runner, but thanks to his father he has abandoned the idea of an athletics club. He doesn’t want to be bringing male friends home with him anymore. The first words of the novel, from Colt’s point of view, are ‘With their father, there was always a catch…’  Hartnett could be describing a worm or a little fish on the end of a line used as bait. Bastian is younger and his life is easier. He acts young for his age, and mercifully, he seems blissfully unaware of the significance of all these purchased gifts in his life- a situation that of course will sadly not last forever.

The Kiley’s are greater in number. Freya is the eldest of any of the children. She is 13, and on the verge of young adulthood and at the same age as Jem in ‘Mockingbird’, also on the verge of truth and knowledge- she has ‘started to see things she hasn’t seen before.’ She looks up to the Jenson’s- Colt, and Rex in particular. She hasn’t seen beyond the shiny exterior, and let’s face it, anything seems preferable to her own raging father. By the end of the book the cruel and intense atmosphere of her household becomes too much, and she enforces a deeply dangerous encounter with her drunken father, only to try and get Rex (her saviour) involved when she cannot handle it. Poor Freya feels the menace of her household keenly, in referring to the existence of a ‘yellow-eyed monster.’ She invents the idea that home is like a castle. She hates the lack of money in the home. And she has a morbid fear that her mother is going to have yet another baby. Freya has to confide in someone, and her inherent misplaced trust in Rex makes the reader fear the onset of tragic circumstances.

Freya’s younger brother Declan is the main protector of his younger brother, Syd. For some reason he seems to be the number one target of his father’s bullying, yet he copes in life by not questioning too much, but rather accepting that things aren’t always easy, or that life has its unfortunately messy complications. When it comes to the crunch- when Joe is trying to force the truth from Rex in their own living room- Declan is interestingly loyal to Rex, and not his own father. The overriding impression of ‘Deco’ is his steadfast demand that his younger brother, Syd, is not to go to the Jenson’s for a swim alone. It is Declan that puts the wind up Mrs Kiley. Syd (Sydney) is an easy target for Rex because he is younger, and unsuspecting. He has all the simple childishness of feeling free and grateful for a swim in a pool, and dreams of one day owning his own skateboard. He is also terrified of his father. The other children- Marigold, Dorrie and Peter, have less of a function in the novel. They too are subject to the witnessing of their father’s moods- ‘they stand around their mother like children in a very old painting- impassive but on guard.’

Outside these family members, Hartnett introduces us to two other ‘golden boys’, two very different boys in Avery and Garrick, and two people that add an enormous amount of interest to the novel. Avery Price is a sad creature, almost an orphan who lives with his grandparents and is always roaming around on his bike, even on his own, at night. He has no choice but to align himself with Garrick, the frightening bully, and seems to be the one most vulnerable to Rex Jenson, who develops an obsession with Avery’s busted knee.

Garrick is frightening, but the reader can’t help but share his despair at being the one who is targeted the most by Rex’s wandering hands. His indignation, shock and anger at having his ‘arse’ touched is chillingly real, as is his incredibly violent physical assault on Colt. Garrick steals Colt’s prized BMX just because he knows Colt will come looking for it. He feels incredibly let down by Colt’s silences- ‘But you knew. You knew, and you didn’t tell us. You let him.’ Garrick’s attack is shockingly bloody because it is the only way Garrick knows how to retaliate- and Hartnett has also built in a homoerotic element into the story as well. Garrick bashes Colt because he loves him.

For those fans of Hartnett who find her treatment of the suburbs fascinating (see also Georgia Blain), GOLDEN BOYS is rich material. The stormwater drain, the enticing backyard swimming pool, the enticing ice creams, the ‘playroom’ filled with innumerable children’s toys, the electric tension in the Kiley household when Joe comes home-‘ They hear the shoving of his chair, his tread across the kitchen’, the creepily ambiguous words Rex uses to the spellbound Freya, who is described brilliantly as ‘she has pulled on a weed and the whole world has come up in her hand’, the chilling fatherly tone Rex uses on Avery when he advises him not to go near the stormwater drain with his bad knee, Rex’s greasy, lizard-like behaviour at the neighbourhood BBQ he organises, ‘at its base runs a thin greenish thread of never-drying slime’ (that’s a description of the stormwater drain, not Rex), the brilliant passage where Freya and Rex are talking, and almost simultaneously on the page the boys are having a slot car race (of course these twin narratives are intertwined), the tense encounter between Rex and Joe at the Kiley’s home when the truth is almost exposed (which strangely enough reminds me of the clash between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan at the Plaza Hotel).



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