Peter Goldsworthy came to prominence in 1989 with his first novel, Maestro, a tale of adolescence and music set in steamy Darwin. Since then, he has made a name for himself with a series of elegant, stylish novels and short stories, and with spare, finely-honed verse. He is a perceptive and ironic chronicler of the ethical and psychological conundrums that beset the lives of middle-class, usually well-educated, and predominantly urban Australians. An active medical practitioner for many years, his interest in matters physiological and scientific has coloured at least two of his novels: Honk If You Are Jesus (1992), a fantasy about cloning Tasmanian Tigers and Jesus himself, and Wish (1995), a love story revolving around a gorilla who learns to communicate in sign language.
The most significant aspect of Goldsworthy’s art, in both fiction and verse, is the tight control he exerts over his material. Anything redundant seems to have been rigorously excluded; his diction (particularly in his verse) is level, largely impersonal and free of rhetorical flourishes. Inevitably, therefore, the range of his writing is confined. He seems to shy away from strong emotions, from suffering and despair, and also from great joy and elation. In the fine novella Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam (1993), the potentially harrowing tale of a child’s death from leukaemia is told with tact and restraint. Admittedly, some readers found that restraint excessive, yet the absence of both melodrama and sentimentality enhances, in my opinion, the tale’s impact. With Goldsworthy less always seems to be more.
His Stupid Boyhood is a memoir of the first eighteen years of Goldsworthy’s life and it shares several characteristics of his fiction. It also incorporates some striking poems, perhaps the best writing the book has to offer. Goldsworthy, who was born in 1951, spent the first years of his life in Minlaton, population 500, ‘multiple Tidy Town winner and self-styled Barley Capital of the World’, on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. His parents were schoolteachers, although in accordance with the rigid public service regulations of the time, Mrs Goldsworthy had to retire after her marriage. Minlaton at that time, for all its tidiness, was a small dusty town lacking the conveniences city people had come to take for granted by then: running water, sewerage, efficient heating and refrigeration. The few cars in the town were usually clapped-out jalopies dating from well before the Second World War. Most needed a crank-handle to start. Mr Tonkins, a neighbour, owned a ‘mechanical brontosaur’ of that kind. Goldsworthy writes at the beginning of His Stupid Boyhood that, at the age of three, ‘watching the car being crank-started – and all the cranked cars to come – was my first love. In fact, watching cars being cranked was my first sexual love.’ Moreover, he remembers, the obsession with crank-handles lasted for several years. Then, ‘whatever the psychodrama of its origins, my particular fetish vanished before the age of ten.’
Here is one of the themes explored in this memoir: childhood erotic experiences – unrecognised at the time, of course – which nevertheless led to further sexual experimentation. ‘Only later, in adolescence,’ writes Goldsworthy, ‘did I come to realise that certain sensations, which I could now produce at will by other means, were not new – they were identical to those lost pleasures of infancy.’
By then, Minlaton had been left behind. The Goldsworthys led the typically itinerant life of schoolteachers employed by the state authorities. At the whim, it seemed, of city bureaucrats, they were ordered at short notice to up sticks and leave for another often isolated district. Sometimes fortune smiled on them, particularly for Goldsworthy’s long-suffering mother. For a while the family would enjoy the benefit of the mod-cons of the day – well-built houses, tap water, efficient cookers and ovens. Then the powers in Adelaide would shake the dice again and send the family off to another rickety house and to the travails of carting water and spluttering chip-heaters.
One of their postings – a place where Mr and Mrs Goldsworthy persisted in their habit of enrolling the townspeople (and young Peter too) in their productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – was to a place called Kadina. There the adolescent Peter was to undergo another variety of sexual experience. One weekend, Goldsworthy’s parents and his brother drove to the city, leaving young Peter behind with his best friend: the clean-cut, clean-living Hugh. Some little time earlier, the two adolescents had had a strange conversation about homosexuality. Goldsworthy insists that he had not caught his friend’s drift. Then, on that weekend the two boys spent alone in the Goldsworthys’ house, Hugh made a pass at Peter, insisting on a kiss, for the sake of friendship.
‘I always thought it silly,’ he announced, apropos of nothing, ‘that men aren’t allowed to show affection for each other.’
I nodded vaguely at the logic of this and kept on reading.
‘For instance, if men are close friends, why can’t they kiss each other? In France men kiss each other all the time.’
This sounded a bit sissy, but harmless enough, and a perfectly sound argument …
Next time I glanced up he was sitting on the edge of my bed. ‘A goodnight kiss, for example.’
‘If that’s what they want,’ I said, more cautiously, but confident it was still an abstract argument.
And so it went on: Hugh cajoling Goldsworthy to kiss him on the mouth, the other resisting with bemusement, but apparently without alarm. At length, Goldsworthy relented: ‘It was the most chaste kiss I had ever given, including to my grandmothers, I hated it, but at least it shut him up.’ He had managed – ‘by sheer effort of will,’ he writes – to overcome his aversion, just as he had learnt how to overcome his aversion to cooked carrots.
In His Stupid Boyhood, this episode is recounted in a casual, even perhaps off-hand way. Yet that evening with Hugh must have made a considerable impression on Goldsworthy – an impression he had perhaps attempted to brush aside with the comment about cooked carrots. In Everything I Knew, a novel published in 2008 (its title the reverse, in a way, of the title of this memoir), Goldsworthy transposed the incident to a town called Penola near the Victorian border, where the family had also lived for a time.
Everything I Knew is the story of the fourteen-year-old Robbie Burns, the son of the town’s police sergeant. Much of what Robbie does mirrors the experiences recounted in this memoir. Robbie, too, likes to experiment in his father’s shed with dangerous chemicals, producing greater and lesser explosions and conflagrations, especially when manufacturing laughing-gas. Like the young Peter Goldsworthy, Robbie is a bit of a show-off at school, perhaps too eager to demonstrate his head for figures. And like the young Goldsworthy, he is the enthusiastic author of lurid science-fiction adventures. Unlike Goldsworthy, however – at least in terms of what His Stupid Boyhood reveals – Robbie is head-over-heels in love with his teacher, the aptly-named Miss Peach from Adelaide, who scandalises Penola with her city ways, smart clothes and Vespa scooter. Robbie’s infatuation with Miss Peach has terrible consequences for the young woman and also for Robbie’s best friend, Billy, whose family have moved south from a ‘mission’ in the north of the state.
Robbie betrays his friend by letting him take the blame for breaking into the schoolteacher’s house while she is away from Penola. And that betrayal is connected, in an imprecise, essentially symbolic manner, to an episode in the police sergeant’s house when Robbie’s parents leave Penola to attend a police ball. Practically off his head with booze and chemical experiments, Robbie is in a near-comatose state when Billy arrives. Billy asks for a kiss. Robbie recoils, but Billy is not to be put off. He reminds Robbie of the time the previous Easter when they masturbated each other. Then he asks to see Robbie’s penis.
‘What’re you fucking afraid of, Robbie, You too chicken to show me? Chicken!’
I’m chicken about nothing. I roll onto my back and slide down my pants.
Billy stares, mesmerised. ‘Can I kiss it?’
His words are so nonsensical he has to repeat them before I register any meaning at all. ‘Are you nuts? Why would you want to kiss a cock? Kiss your own fucking cock!’
‘I tried,’ he slurs. ‘I couldn’t reach.’ He rolls over on top of me. ‘Why can’t best friends kiss each other’s cocks? You let me pull it last time! Same diff. Let me suck it’
‘Fuck off,’ I say, and at last find the strength to shove him away.
Is this what really happened in Kadina, or is this, as seems more likely, an imaginative reworking of a much less dramatic, perhaps less troubling experience?
This is not the only instance where His Stupid Self hints at the origins of episodes and preoccupations in Goldsworthy’s work. His account of the time his family spent in Darwin illuminates sections of Maestro. The fine poems that are scattered throughout the text find the sources of their imagery and concerns in this account of a fairly ordinary, largely uneventful childhood. Most absorbing are several episodes towards the end of the memoir which show the emergence of the poet and novelist during the years Goldsworthy spent as a medical student in Adelaide, a period more notable, perhaps, for his devotion to certain Eastern European poets than to Grey’s Anatomy.
I hope that His Stupid Boyhood will be followed in time by a sequel. There, no doubt, we will find a fuller, more absorbing portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man. What such a book might resemble is hinted at in the opening and closing chapters of this memoir, in which the mature Goldsworthy muses on the implications of his recollections of his early life. One sentence on the first page struck me as significant and revealing: ‘This story is more about the getting of stupidity; the getting of wisdom would have to wait.’ I hope that if such an account of the getting of wisdom is to be written, Goldsworthy will manage to slacken a little the restraint and self-deprecating irony that inform this memoir of childhood. Restraint and irony are fine qualities that serve admirably the purposes of his fiction and verse. I wish, nevertheless, that he would lift the mask a little when addressing himself to the fundamentally confessional task of writing a memoir.