I wrote this appraisal in response to a request to present a book to an old blokes’ book club (where I was a former member). We met at a café in Claremont on 30 June 2020. Discussion was lively and opinions, as usual, were many and varied. Some members took issue with the structure and found trouble with the shifts between present and past tenses. Others found the story interesting but having too many strands, some of which were not developed. And some, like me, thought the inner world of the key protagonist, Jack Muir, could have been explored in much more depth. But the book, overall, stimulated everyone and all of us were familiar with the era, although the trajectory of our lives differed greatly from the physical and emotional journey of the author’s alter ego.
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First a confession. I know Jon. Not well – but well enough that I could invite him to do the Denmark launch for my first novel, Absence Makes. This was seven years ago. Prior to that, I attended the launch in Fremantle of his second stanza in the Jack Muir trilogy – To the Highlands, where Jack is a young man in New Guinea, doing a boring job and living it up. Before that there was the acclaimed Boy on a Wire, an excruciating account of being a boarding student at a Perth private school. That semi-fictional memoir captured what it was like to be sent away from home, allegedly for the purposes of education – only to be confined in an institution where bullying was rife and empathy for young, developing boys was almost non-existent.
We have been waiting some years for Return Ticket. Whether that reflects due diligence on the part of the author – or being distracted by other more pressing matters – is an open question. He may give some sort of answer but in the end it doesn’t matter a damn. The book is the best by far of his work.
Why do I say that? For starters, we have moved from tortured adolescence to indulgent youth – to a maturing and evolving Jack Muir. He begins the book in his home town of ‘Kincannup’ in 2018. In other words it is contemporary, as he writes. He is washing dishes – and we are introduced to the theme of the compulsive dishwasher, which recurs throughout the book. Before the end of the first page Jack is taking us back to Israel in the early 1970s where he supported himself washing dishes for an Israeli baker. And then that short introduction ends.
The real story begins on page 10, with Jack looking back over his shoulder half a century when he climbed aboard the Fairstar in Fremantle, bound for the UK – but he is waylaid, so to speak, in Durban, South Africa. There he develops a political and social conscience, and experiences the contrasting story of life under apartheid with what he has been accustomed to in the comfort of his home country. Eyes wide open, he experiences brutality and near misses, while introduced to drugs and sex. He is on the bones of his bum but somehow scrapes through.
By 1973 the scene shifts to Israel. He is a volunteer on a kibbutz. By then we get a sense of his idealism – much as it affected many of us at that time. Yet, in contrast to South Africa, he is now forced to be responsible and he takes to that with a relish, unlike other volunteers who he describes as ‘spoilt, self-indulgent, pretend hippies’. None of them have cleaned a toilet in their lives and they have to learn to get down and dirty.
Slowly the veils fall off Jack’s eyes when he sees the kibbutz is not living up to his concept of a socialist dream. But he does find Israeli friends who he respects and he earns respect from them. Many conversations take place as he learns about the intricacies of the Middle East. He also manages to fall in love or in lust, whatever. Neeva is an Israeli. Jack’s friend, learning of the relationship, called him a ‘brave man’.
There is indeed a problem. The family for starters – Polish survivors of the Holocaust, who will disown their daughter if she remains with Jack. She also has a boyfriend – all in all, complications that paint a gloomy future for the relationship.
Indeed this is so. As Jack describes it, he ran away from South Africa because of hate and he runs away from Israel because of love. Back in Australia, he is in turmoil – raging ‘against himself, his parents. He hated everybody he met, in the bakery, in the front bar of the Freemasons Hotel and at the Kookaburra Café.’ Basically, Jack came home unannounced and within a short period of time he is amongst ‘idiots who had no idea what was going on in the world, the wars, assassinations, mass murders, invasions, suppression of freedom.’
He misses the intensity of his conversations when he was away and now he finds that people just make statements, without the experience or the depth of understanding. Or they talk about the weather, the stock market or the Potato Marketing Board – the latter a reference to the south-western region of Western Australia where our author grew up, and potato farming was all the go.
Lonely and bored, Jack realises the only thing he can do, in a nutshell, is work. Which he does, with an energy bordering upon compulsive. In the course of family gatherings his mother talks to him about her own past. Jack admits to being depressed but says it ‘won’t let him down’. He wants his mother to admit her own depression but she says she hasn’t got time for ‘that sort of thing’. Besides, his father ‘would not allow it.’
As for old school friends, they are mostly in real estate and property development and the thought of spending time with them ‘repulsed him’.
Then there is an interesting event – a kind of moment where the light bulbs go off, if only momentarily. Jack is taken by his father, Andrew, to the Rotary Club in the Freemasons Hotel. He is nervous, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He will talk about his experiences in Israel. When introduced, he is asked whether the people he has been with (in Israel) are Communists and whether that crushes individuality. Jack ends up giving a neat comparison between ‘totalitarian bullshit’ and a kibbutz movement which ‘believes in the education and improvement of the individual because if the individual achieves, this will benefit the collective.’ On that note he asks whether they think his father – who is definitely all about improving the collective through his individual actions – is a Communist. That draws laughter and an approving hand on the shoulder from his dad when they go home. This is the approval that sons – perhaps all sons – seek from a father.
Meanwhile, his Israeli girlfriend is back with her boyfriend and tells Jack to find a new love.
A second magic moment occurs when Jack’s parents – and Jack – surprise themselves by engaging in a ‘kind of hug’, before breaking off quickly and going in their own directions. He goes to bed that night ‘his eyes full of tears, his heart full of love and longing’, and he mulls over his mother’s suggestion that he see a psychiatrist.
Jack goes back to Israel. He’s received a letter from Neeva that indicates her parents have come around. Upon arriving, he is soon back working in the kibbutz. When he meets up again with his girlfriend it is awkward. She goes back to the army and he continues working, this time armed with a pistol, as the security situation is fraught. But his depression has lifted and he feels at home.
To cut to the chase, Neeva gets pregnant, baby gets aborted, both leave Israel, get married in Scotland, return to Australia, marriage flounders. Those of us who have had partners with different cultural backgrounds will appreciate how the scene in Australia can both attract and repel. It is, as the expression goes, laid-back – and while this has its positive aspects, it can also drive Europeans screaming up the wall.
Neeva leaves, but not before they have had ‘vigorous and sweaty sex’ on the last morning together. Jack is ashamed and keeps his shame to himself, not wanting to tell his parents about his ‘latest failure’. He lets himself go, drinking heavily, and full of remorse for not being perceptive enough to make it clear to himself and to Neeva he would have wanted the child.
Jack goes back to Israel in 1976. (Another 'return ticket'?) Things don’t work out particularly well. He spends time with his girlfriend and has a couple of flings. He does a lot of talking and the political situation gets canvassed. He meets Americans and Dutchmen and other nationalities. They also talk a bit about religion. One American thinks he is Jesus and that get up Jack’s nose. Religion, as such, gets short shrift.
Through the story, Jack regularly returns to the present – 2018. Three quarters of the way through the book he talks about his friend, Hansie, a psychiatrist who was ‘once a South African’. There is discussion about the collective shadow and Jungian psychology. They also meet with Lester, an Aboriginal man – at a café in Kincannup. Hansie also introduces Jack to the notion of our shadow – the denial of those aspects of the unconscious that get projected onto other people on a collective basis. Jack doesn’t need formal sessions – the coffee meetings with Hansie are enough. He is also pleased Hansie is not omnipotent – he too makes mistakes in his relationships and ‘falls victim to a desperate need to be loved.’
Jack is a bit of a literary person. He can quote Kahlil Gibran and Herman Hesse – almost compulsory reading in 'alternative' circles in the 1960s and 70s.
After another visit to Israel, Jack seeks out a cousin at Pinjarra with whom he feels confident he can unburden himself. The conversation ends with a hug and tears – no words are needed. This feels like a bit of a tangent in the book, as the cousin doesn’t feature otherwise in the story.
But in Israel in 1977, Jack meets the woman who will stay with him and meet him in all respects. She is of Dutch extraction and they go to Amsterdam together. The reception at the airport leads him into detention until he can get clearance – but his new love’s father hates him, mainly for the fact he will entice his daughter to Australia.
Back in Perth Jack goes to university and finally gets himself an education. He is still married to Neeva, and has to get divorced with the self-help Australian divorce laws that came in 1975. His Dutch lady has yet to arrive and Jack has to get a job to support her and him.
She does show up – and gets pregnant – and a child is born. But Jack is a mess again, drinking too much and smoking. He goes to an AA meeting and weeps. After that he doesn’t smoke or drink again. Those who have worked with addicts might find their eyebrows heading skywards. It ain’t always that easy. As a reader, I would have liked more detail about the effects of going cold turkey.
Years later Jack meets up with Neeva in Israel. She asked him why he’s come and he says he has come to apologise. It is a nice moment of reconciliation and redemption. Important to the book, I thought.
Throughout the story we are treated to Jack’s musings about the state of the world and humans in general.
As the book draws to a close he acknowledges he and his wife are ‘romantic socialists’. They like to give money to people or to do shopping for others and have a sense of community and kindness. Jack revives the old quote that if ‘you were young and not a socialist you had no heart, and if you were older and not a capitalist you had no sense’. As they had accumulated enough to live on, he and his wife could still afford to be generous to others less fortunate.
The book, in its present setting, is very aligned with contemporary Albany (‘Kincannup’). Jack is still enamoured with the concept of the kibbutz but he distinguishes the toughness and resilience and ability of the Israelis from the totalitarian regimes that permeate the world. He is also very tuned into Aboriginal issues and culture. And, to top it off, he goes to Iran to look up an old friend who he met on the kibbutz. He is surprised about how open people are with him. Not the fanatical place he expected. These diversions – the indigenous associations and commentaries, and the journey to Iran - feel extraneous to the main story. It’s as if everything in Jack’s life has been thrown into a pot – to melt, boil, or evaporate. As with the interlude with his cousin, William, these strands are a bit like stray cobwebs. Perhaps a more stringent editor would have ruled them out.
In the last pages, Jack acknowledges the socialist experiment is over and that parties of the Left in most modern democracies have become shadows ‘and only inhabit stories told by ageing baby boomers with beards and memories’. Israel is included in that category – and Jack gives a bit of a breakdown of countries that are not really countries and the aftermath of colonialism where lines were drawn in the sand. And Jack reflects on his own insignificance ‘even less than an atom in the history of the universe’. Again, this opens the door to more in-depth reflection but Jack chooses not to enter. It’s a good line about the ageing baby boomers and their memories – and has current ramifications in our polarised world where liberalism is under attack on many fronts. Having introduced the subject, I wanted the author to dig and speculate and expand. But instead the story winds down, and the moment is lost.
Jack’s mother dies before his father, which was how they thought it would happen. Before she dies his mother comes out with the statement ‘I wasn’t much of a mother was I?’ A statement Jack describes as a ‘ glorious and painful moment when a person you have known from the beginning of your time opens the heart and soul and all you can do is hold them and thank them for honouring the relationship.’ This is a gem of a statement – one that gets to the heart of the pain and glory inherent in our connectivity with other humans.
As for his father, Jack describes a combative relationship that reminded me of my struggle with my own father. His dad tells him, not long before his melanoma diagnosis, ‘you were a cantankerous, argumentative boy.’ Jack tries to deny it. His father affirms it, and Jack tries to deny it again – thus, in a humorous way, confirming what the father has said. But their aims were different. Jack’s father wanted his son to agree with him but Jack says that ‘all I ever wanted for you was to accept who I was, that I might hold a different view, sometimes, perhaps, even agreeing with you, but from a different perspective.’ He then watches his father reflect and to soften in his final days. They hug ‘the hug of the quick and the living’. Jack wonders whether he would need that length of time before he is able to share secrets with his own son.
Coincidentally – if there is such a thing as a ‘coincidence’ - on the very day I wrote this review I watched two YouTube videos where the protagonists, from childhood, had been dissatisfied with their circumstances and wanted to find their place in the wider world. The first was the singer/songwriter, Joni Mitchell. She grew up in a small town on the bleak Canadian prairies. She escaped – but only by getting pregnant and running away to hide her shame. Yet it led to her development as an artist and the documentary was beautifully crafted, revealing her struggle with the ‘alone time’ needed for her art and also for her desire to be loved and to love. Then I watched a documentary about the physicist, David Bohm. He had grown up in the back-blocks of Pennsylvania, a coal mining area, where his father ran a small business. From an early age he gazed at the stars and speculated about the universe. But he too had to get away – to get away from his father’s expectations that he would into the business. Being a physicist was not considered quite the same thing. Jack Muir exemplifies this deeply held desire to find meaning and purpose – and to turn one’s back on both upbringing and locality – a kind of fumbling and bumbling path into the wider world that you know will offer its fair share of disappointment and heartache but at the same time represents an invitation to find out who you really are and what you can contribute while you are here on Earth.
I found the book got more powerful as it progressed. Sometimes the political discourses struck me as a bit naïve – but that was the idealistic, romantic socialist that Jack acknowledges. I guess you often want the characters in the book to turn out the same values as you have – and the same conclusions about life. But they’re not designed to do that and you can’t argue with an author for not fitting them into your mould.
It’s an easy read. The narrative, although it skips around in time, is coherent – and the dialogue is pretty straightforward. Jack’s internal life is crucial to the book and I kept hoping the author would plough deeper into that fertile field. There is so much rich material around the way we come out of a family, with all our expectations and the expectations of others – and how we find our place in the world, navigating new relationships and finding a productive and satisfying way of living. For some, this seems to come comparatively easily although I would surmise such folk are in the minority. Even for privileged baby boomers there have been challenges – and, in some cases, tragedies. How we have met these challenges has formed us, and how we have evolved and grown in our understanding is something Jack Muir would be interested in but did not really articulate in any detail.
Is there any place for hope? Are we just a minuscule part of a tiny speck, a brief spark in the unfolding universe, destined to be birthed, to die, and be forgotten? Or is there some greater purpose with which we can wrestle as individuals and share collectively? Quasi-autobiographical books such as Return Ticket provide an opportunity for an author to delve into these realms and although Jon Doust makes it clear he is not Jack Muir, I’ll wager there is enough in Jack’s reflections and conclusions that Jon will find aligned with his own.
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