Testament to true power of one

The dedication in Bryce Courtenay’s last novel is moving.
The dedication in Bryce Courtenay’s last novel is moving.
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman.

Bryce Courtenay
Viking, 720pp, $45

Talking about the end of a book at the beginning of the review is usually not the thing to do. But Bryce Courtenay's final novel, Jack of Diamonds, has its best moments there. It is worth reading through the story to see what he writes at the end of his book, his writing career and his life. Not that the story itself isn't worth reading - far from it - it's what we have come to expect from this prolific writer who, for the past two decades, put out a book nearly every year.

His best writing was to be found in his non-fiction April Fool's Day, the story of his son's losing battle against HIV. When constrained by the imperatives of factual reportage and the examination of memory and lived experience, Courtenay had a great power to move and to convey clear insights. The life he lived was certainly as interesting as the best of the stories that his imagination conjured into narrative.

For many readers, his best fictional work was always The Power of One, which set the Bildungsroman template for most of his subsequent books: a marginalised but talented child learning survival skills in order to grow up successfully in a corrupt and violent society.

The skills always had to be extraordinary: in The Power of One, Peekay is a genius and champion boxer. In Jack of Diamonds, Jack Spayd's intelligence is something he must hide at school in order to escape bullying. As a child, his desire to read mollifies the grumpy local librarian into giving him special borrowing privileges. His musical ability is outstanding enough to attract several benefactors and mentors: his henpecked neighbour Mac; Miss Byatt (known as Miss Frostbite), owner of a jazz club; Miss Bates, her classical pianist friend; and Joe Hockey, the ''Negro jazz pianist''.

The last name was something of a surprise and continued to jar whenever it came up, though I guess it won't affect Courtenay's many overseas readers until maybe after the next federal election. Names are important in all novels; Courtenay's names sometimes hit the mark and sometimes just don't. If ''Miss Frostbite'' has a Fleming-esque tang, ''Juicy Fruit'' (the call-girl who buys the right to deflower Jack as a young man) goes beyond double to single entendre with a clumsy nudge-nudge-wink-wink. ''Jack Spayd'' sounds just as clunky, obviously concocted to create witty dialogue for all the card games he is going to play.

Those reservations aside, Jack of Diamonds is classic Courtenay. Jack, born in Cabbagetown, a poor neighbourhood of Toronto, has a drunken, violent father and an angelic, much-abused but hard-working and courageous mother, Gertrude.

The descriptions of domestic violence are harsh, but anyone working in the field knows that such stories have the ring of authenticity: the arbitrary whims of the abuser rule the family. What is persuasive here is the camaraderie between mother and son as they conspire in small pleasures (such as reading), and avoid the father's rages by anticipating his wishes and reactions. With this difficult beginning, Jack becomes a jazz pianist and harmonica player, aided by a small army of benefactors and various mentors.

Of course Gertrude cannot leave her abuser; if there is one thing Courtenay is good at, it is to present the sweep of societal forces that confine his characters' choices and form their consciences and fates. Jack of Diamonds takes Jack through the Great Depression in Canada, then to service as a medical aide in the Canadian army during World War II. He then goes to Las Vegas as the Mafiosi construct their casino empires, and thence to South Africa to avoid the unwelcome notice of a sociopathic Mafia debt collector.

Jack of Diamonds looks a bit rushed, with an urgency to the complexities of the rambling tale: ideas and echoes of other books and other characters abound, sometimes chaotically.

But the first-person narrative saves it: the sense of compassionate personal engagement can lift Courtenay's writings.

In this, his last book (Courtenay died on November 22), there is a sense of the story continuing as he sketches out what happens to Jack after the main story finishes. The brevity and inventiveness of the draft make pleasurable reading; with that, the book is a shoo-in for a film or mini-series adaptation.

Courtenay's final dedication is a moving one, but the main achievement of Jack of Diamonds is to offer, despite all his quirks and prolixity, a sense of his real voice; of the intelligent, engaged and kind human being who wrote it.

This story Testament to true power of one first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.