Craig Silvey’s The Amber Amulet is a deceptively simple tale that hides many classic themes within its layers. By night, twelve-year-old Liam McKenzie patrols Franklin Street in the guise of super-hero the Masked Avenger, aided (and sometimes hindered) by his sidekick, Richie the Powerbeagle. The prime belief underpinning the Masked Avenger’s doctrine is the enormous potential of dormant energy that is trapped in gemstones and minerals, which hold specific powers. He believes that energy is omnipresent, but as the world is both positively and negatively charged, he is very aware that the balance between good and evil can easily be disturbed, and he is thus constantly on the lookout for ‘Trouble’.
Wheen asked why his later writing had taken on such a different character, Eugenio Montale explained that this was because it came from la retrobottega – literally, from the back of the shop – that place where an artist might unhurriedly conduct a private experiment or two. Something similar might be said of Welcome to Normal, the first collection of stories by Nick Earls in more than a decade. Earls is, of course, well known for his cheerful novels about young Brisbane schlemiels and their tribulations of the heart (though the author must by now grit his teeth every time the label ‘lad lit’ is misleadingly appended to his work). These latest stories suggest an altogether different trajectory for his fiction, one that is more ambivalent, more serious, and much closer to the world we call real.
In contemporary crime fiction, first-person narrators can often sound irritatingly implausible, either too much the Marlovian stoic or too much the Holmesian savant. This is not the case with The Fix, Nick Earls’s latest offering, in which the narratorial voice is convincing from the first page. Then again, The Fix is hardly a conventional work of crime fiction; it has some ingredients of the genre (a death, a cover-up, a bit of gunplay), but also a good deal of comedy and single-guy angst. Even more surprisingly, the reliable narrator doing the detective work is not some gumshoe or forensics-lab genius, but – of all things – a lifestyle blogger and part-time spin doctor.
Though born and bred in Brisbane, I had never read anything written by Nick Earls prior to this assignment. The closest I had come was a book reading over a decade ago when Earls amused the audience with excerpts from his Bachelor Kisses (1998), before the late Grant McLennan beguiled them with an acoustic rendering of The Go-Betweens song of the same name. The Go-Betweens connection remains palpable in Earls’s latest novel, The True Story of Butterfish. The title of the failed third album of the fictional rock band Butterfish, Written in Sand, Written in Sea, can be nothing other than an allusion to ‘Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea’, the song which rounds out Forster and McLennan’s classic record Spring Hill Fair. Beyond that, references abound to the streets, monuments and cloying humidity of the Queensland capital Nick Earls what to Brisbane as Lou Reed is to New York. Earls is also one of a long line of individuals Anton Chekhov, Stanislaw Lem, J.G. Ballard and others who gave up a career in medicine for a life of literary endeavour. Yet while the work of Ballard, to take the most contemporary example, includes disfigured bodies, transplanted limbs and exotic diseases, Earls seems to have left his life as a sawbones far behind. It is rather his misfortune to have been associated with the style known as ‘lad lit’, for which Nick Hornby is poster-boy.
‘Look, here I am, I’m sixteen and I’m hundreds of miles from home! I want adventure! I want excitement! I want to boldly go where no Noble has gone before. Look at me! Look! Look!’ In Leonie Stevens’s Eat Well and Stay Out of Jail, Vicky Noble has left Melbourne to escape the tedium of a shelf-stacking job at the supermarket and the torment of a publicly failed romance. Vicky wants more than just to run away from her life. She craves a brand new one, preferably on the Jack Kerouac model.