Marlo is one of those towns passed through on the way to somewhere else. In the 1950s, when Jay Carmichael’s new novel is set, towns like Marlo were small and, too often, small-minded. Ignorance, inexperience and self-absorption can live hand-in-glove with the idea of “community”. Christopher, a young man from a farm, is not a good fit in Marlo. He needs a place where he can breathe and with the help of his older sister he organises to move to the city, to Melbourne. Marlo opens with his arrival at the station, where, as all country children do, he calls his sister to tell her he’s arrived. He’s safe.
His sister has arranged for him to stay with Kings, an old schoolfriend. Meeting him at the pub, Christopher is startled to see a man so attractive that he “wants to run [my] hand over him and verify his realness”. It was Kings who had made him first aware of his sexuality when he was pre-pubescent. It had terrified him. Now Kings, the confident country boy, has transformed into a confident city boy, a court reporter for a tabloid newspaper. But Kings makes Christopher feel exactly as he had when they were boys: “So small, so Insignificant. No substance.” Christopher’s instinct is to recoil, from the force of desire as much as anything else.
It was as late as 1961 when the magnificent Dirk Bogarde played a barrister with a hidden but blameless life in Victim and for the first time the word “homosexual” was spoken in an English-language film. The film was courageous and sensational, but it was also baffling to many, especially those who knew Bogarde as a straight romantic lead. It is the many who interest Carmichael. If you were neither of the Whites, Edmund or Patrick, if you were just a run-of-the-mill sort in every way except your sexuality, what was life like in those silent years? The word has to be “hidden”. Male homosexuality was under intense and unsympathetic scrutiny.
Christopher, neither an artist nor an intellectual, finds a job as a car mechanic where he remains aloof from his fellow workers. Kings’ occupation as tabloid reporter is deft craft. Christopher gets an education hearing him dictating over the phone voyeuristic gloats about murders, sexual affairs, divorces and particularly the acts of homosexual men. Kings, the country boy with James Dean looks, is in his element. But there’s an undercurrent in his obsessive interest in these stories, his interest in Christopher and his own strident heterosexuality. These were the days when men were imprisoned for their sexuality, and the law, like the rest of the nation, regarded homosexual acts as something that came with two words: perverted, deviant.
Carmichael, working in a muted language that underscores the suffocation of the times, brushes in half-tones revealing those years when there was a single model for life: heterosexuality, marriage, houses, children. Christopher has yet to meet his people, but he has no idea where they are, or, terribly, if they even exist. He wouldn’t know what the word deviant meant. The unshowy intelligence of this novel shines in Christopher’s ordinariness. He wants the ordinary: his own house, a decent job, a garden, pets. And he wants to fall in love, which happens when he meets Morgan. But there is nowhere they can meet in public. They have no visibility, they can scarcely express or even dream about what they might be to each other in an everyday world not so much ungenerous but cripplingly, even wilfully, ignorant. Carmichael appreciates the pleasures of the ordinary but he cannot celebrate it. This novel, written with controlled retrospective fury and pain, is interleaved with archival black and white photographs of Melbourne, of known beats at the time and of particular parties. The photographs – grim, poignant, essentially dull – resonate. As does the novel. This was us? Indeed, it was.
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