A laughing man, according to Flaubert, is stronger than a suffering one. But as Craig Sherborne’s extraordinary new memoir of childhood and youth shows, the distinction isn’t that simple. There is much to laugh at in Hoi Polloi, but this is also a book suffused with pain and suffering. Sherborne is both a powerful satirist and a poet of vulnerability. The poems by Sherborne included in The Best Australian Poems 2003 show something comparable. Those tightly controlled and acidic poems explored similar ground to that covered in Hoi Polloi. But this prose account of childhood is even more attuned to the doubleness of life, to its mix of farce and tragedy.
Hoi Polloi opens with the narrator and his parents living in New Zealand in the late 1960s. The family hotel (not a ‘pub’, according to the narrator’s mother) is the setting for the narrator’s early experiences. The memoir opens: ‘The first time I see drunks beat up my father I’m six and standing at the bend in the stairs.’ What follows sets the tone for the rest of the work: prose that illustrates an unsettling, almost clinical, ability to describe painful events, matched with a capacity to evoke an empathetic pain in the reader.