Illustration
© Jeffrey Phillips

By the book

Blokesville

Malcolm Knox writes about racism, pornography and dysfunctional families, all within the narrative of a Sydney Test match

Benjamin Golby |

Batting against South Africa in the final Test of an Australian summer, carrying scores of 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, is the blunt alpha-male semi-hero of Malcolm Knox's A Private Man. He's likeable. A cricketer of decency who walks and signs autographs for supporters. Who also cheats on his wife and yearns for bygone days of excess "out on the tool".

The trooping No. 4 batsman is a relict, in relative terms a youth from the Border years playing on into the tenure of Captain Ponting. If only for legal (other than artistic) purposes, the Australian side in the novel is fictional, though. Indeed, one hopes the depiction is made with heavy creative licence, such is their gaucheness and barbarity. The Test cricketers contest and sledge with depravity, are in repose racist louts, and at the culmination, when all are drunk during celebrations, a woman is raped.

The few dozen pages of A Private Man given over to cricket are among the best of the game's fiction to describe play. The batsman makes a triple-century. Not a triple-century to open a nightclub over, nor the maddest, merriest day in Leeds, but a monumental two-day saga akin to Mark Taylor in Peshawar or Brendon McCullum's august rearguard.

Such a stupendous achievement as a triple-ton commends itself to fiction, and there is nothing obvious or dull in this telling. The innings is dwelt upon in its moments of uncertainty, anger and exhaustion, with any sense of triumph brushed through. It commences with the batsman drained, resenting his family, and concludes, how else, with a string of commonplace answers at a press conference.

Knox, emeritus cricket correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, author of a revisionist history of the 1948 Ashes, and ghostwriter of Adam Gilchrist's autobiography (among other feats of cricket belletrism), sets his second novel early in a new year across the five days of the Sydney Test. However, cricket, central as a plot device, is a sideshow to the novel's preoccupations: family dysfunction, social pretence and pornography consumption.

The few dozen pages of A Private Man given over to cricket are among the best of the game's fiction to describe play

The last of the three subjects is provoking, not because it is kinky or depraved, but by its ordinariness. Descriptions are of time spent, intended minutes becoming half-hours, trousers down, trawling through websites. Men individually doing so secretly and guiltily, while others, such as cricket teams, engage communally, passing around magazines and forwarding emails.

As the novel reflects, pornography is prevalent in society and, by grace of the internet, accessible, anonymous and free. Its relation to cricket has been sometimes noted. Russell Jackson's account of the Boxing Day MCG media box from earlier this year is horrid. Emma John's review of this book, on its release over ten years ago, makes similar conclusions.

The potent mix of subject in A Private Man, with its cricketer (and his 331 not out) a side plot, is unsurprising given the author's ambit. Knox's non-cricket non-fiction has a range to match his compatriot Gideon Haigh's, with subjects charting from methamphetamine to airlines to obsession to supermarket operation to uncovering a hoax memoirist. He's not always infallible as a writer, and in recent years his appreciation of Shane Warne's mural has smacked of hauteur, while his race-energised response to Chris Gayle's proposition of Mel McLaughlin met with censure.

Knox's services to cricket discourse, though - the latest offerings being a study of Australia's wicketkeepers and the official biography of Phillip Hughes - make him pre-eminent among the game's living authors. That his canon extends to a cricket novel, or at least something of one, is a blessing. This combination of a prominent cricket writer assaying the sport in fiction occurs elsewhere only with Mike Marqusee's debut work, Slow Turn.

© Vintage Books

Knox is a good writer and this novel's opening 150 or so pages are engrossing, portraying a family of bristling individuals skirting disintegration. It loses something of its way in the back half, slightly too long, and, unpleasingly, its knot of troubles conclude in glib resolution. It's worth reading, though, if just for its excellent cricket writing. That it ventures into less often discussed territory is a bonus. It might disclose a topic more often obscured, and perhaps lead you to consider your own relation to pornography. At the least, it's a neat critique of the green and golden mindset.

Extract

Chris Brand fields at fourth slip for the opening bowler. Blond boy, nicknamed 'Simmo', not because Simpson is his name - it isn't - but in recognition of the desert between his ears. Simmo runs in. Chris goes into a crouch, settling in on his left knee first to ease the strain on the arthritic right, as if working his way down a rope. He watches the ball in the bowler's hand, then switches his focus to the bat, tapping, tapping, whirring into the set of triggers unique to every batsman, ending, this time, in a decision to let the ball fly through to the wicketkeeper. Someone who is not Chris lets out a mischievous howl of frustration, as if the ball had been a lot closer than it was, and someone else rips off a loud fart.

Simmo runs in. Chris crouches. Another leave. Someone oohs again, but Tom Pritchard makes a mini-megaphone of his hands: 'Come on, make him play! These two balls! Come on, boys!' Geeing them up. Being a captain.

To Chris's right, Nathan Such says something to Chris. Chris ignores him... Now they crouch for the second opening bowler, a young Aboriginal quick. Press love him, of course, though he's not really up to this standard. Chris watches his liquid run, then switches his eye to the bat. The ball kicks off an invisible ridge and hits the edge of the bat. At first it slews to Chris' right, but the pace and side-spin warp it back towards him. He has to do the hardest thing for a slips catcher: go forward to the ball. He reaches out with a cupped right hand but something in his knee sticks, and as his arm goes out in front his bum pushes back. The ball bounces in front of his hand. He twitches away from it - you can lose your teeth going forward - but by pure fluke the ball sticks. His fingers close around it. A huge roar is choked off, heads are thrown back in anguish, and then the knowledgeable, or those who think they are knowledgeable, or at least the merciful, set off a round of generous applause for Chris Brand's excellent stop.

A Private Man (published as Adult Book in some regions)
By Malcolm Knox

Benjamin Golby is a pre-school music teacher and roulette croupier. Jeffrey Phillips is a Melbourne-based artist

 

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