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by David Malouf

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291892,387 (3.8)19
"Despite Johnno's assertion that Brisbane was absolutely the ugliest place in the world, I had the feeling as I walked across deserted intersections, past empty parks with their tropical trees all spiked and sharp-edged in the early sunlight, that it might even be beautiful ... " Johnno is a typical Australian who refuses to be typical. His disorderly presence can disturb the staleness of his home town or destroy the tranquillity of a Greek landscape. An affectionately outrageous portrait, David Malouf's first novel recreates the war-conscious forties, the pubs and brothels of the fifties, and the years away treading water overseas.… (more)

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I did enjoy this book, but I struggled to get into the first 20 or 30 pages, and sort of rushed through the last 20 or 30 pages. It's only a small book, so that is a fairly significant portion of the book. The middle pages, however, were engaging and quite well written.

It has that very self-conscious style that a lot of Australian "literature" has, which I've never really related to. He's a poet, so there is plenty going on between the lines if that's what you're into. I'm more into passion and life bursting out of the prose than subtext and implication carefully sequestred in it.

The titular character is very interesting and quite well drawn. ( )
  robfwalter | Jul 31, 2023 |
Johnno is a short novel by the Australian author David Malouf . The chapters devoted to telling the story of the main character Johnno are embedded in a framework of two chapters, the first and the last describing the narrator's days mourning the death of his grandfather. These chapters create the setting for going through old things, papers and memories, and in this nostalgic mood the narrator remembers and tells the story of his classmate Johnno.

Although the narrator, Dante, and Johnno seem each other's opposites, in their adventures they are complementary, with Danta mostly poised to admire Johnno's audacity and Johnno at times showing unexpected loyalty to Dante. The novel is a tribute to pure, male friendship.

In this way, the novel tells the story of coming of age in the late 40s through early 60s, starting in Australia during the war and rather boring 50s, an opening up of an exciting stay on the European continent and final days back in Australia. ( )
  edwinbcn | Feb 11, 2017 |
I love Malouf's writing. It is so simple, direct, honest and sympathetic.

"Dante" and Johnno--the one relatively steady and conservative in outlook, the other a spirited, irreverent (in so many ways) force of nature--are children together in 30s/40s Brisbane. Their lives entwine for some time and David Malouf shares their relationship with us. Johnno is a rebellious child who becomes a fairly unpleasant young man. Even so, he is strangely "attractive". Perhaps it is because he seems like something different: he's almost a sprite, or one of those Greek/Roman minor gods of the sulky and slightly malicious variety.

The thing that really attracted me about this book (aside from Malouf's beautiful writing), was not, however, the spirited Johnno (I can't say "free-spirited", as he spent his life seeking something, perhaps some extra thrill or risk that would make him really BE, so he was never actually "free") but rather the relationship of both young men with the changing face of their home town of Brisbane. Similar to Perth in so many ways, the charting of the changes and how they effected the lives of these young men for whom its landscape was the landscape of their youth struck a deep chord with me.

In particular, the following passage made me question my limpet-like attachment to Perth, a city which has become over time, since my birth in the early 1970s, a place whose urban landscape and societal values I actively dislike almost without exception. Like Dante, I have to ask myself, am I in a sort of state of suspended animation here? Have I never really "grown-up"?

"Brisbane, where I sometimes thought of myself as having 'grown-up', was a place where I seemed never to have changed. Just turning a corner sometimes on a familiar view, or a familiar sign [...] made me step back years and become the fourteen-year-old, or worse still, the twenty-year-old I once was, helpless before emotions I thought I had outgrown but had merely repressed. All my assurance, all my sophistication about foreign places and performances and food, like the growing heaviness round the shoulders, was a disguise that might fool others but could never fool me. Elsewhere I might pass for a serious adult. Here, I knew, I would always be an aging child. I might grow old in Brisbane but I would never grow up."

Unsettling thoughts. ( )
  Vivl | Apr 5, 2013 |
Johnno is Malouf’s first novel and is written in the first person past tense and the narrator is only ever known by the nickname "Dante".

Apparently the book is very heavily autobiographical. It starts with Dante clearing out his father's house after his death. He finds a photograph of his friend Johnno, and the rest is for the most part reverie.

The story is centred upon the friendship between Dante and a schoolmate known as "Johnno" in their discontented adolescence and early adulthood in the 1940s and 1950s in Brisbane and of their travels overseas.

Malouf’s detailed account of Brisbane is very evocative of the times and his way with words very much places you within the hot streets of Brisbane – which seem to offer no relief or excitement. It wasn’t a city then. Just a dusty humid mosquito ridden small time town and that sultry lethargy sinks into your bones by the distinctive way Malouf writes. I was very impressed with Malouf’s “The Great World” (about two Australian men who went to war and their lives following) and thought that “Johnno” might suit my father who is more of the era of the characters in “Johnno” While “The Great World” is of the generation before… (however now that I have finished – not so sure my father would enjoy Johnno).

As in “The Great World” – “Johnno” also highlights the class differences of two growing up, one poor, one middle class - their outcomes and friendship between two men. (It’s not the class differences my father wouldn't ’enjoy but the swearing and the underlying sense of the love between the two main characters.) (I did mention to Evan and Liam my father is old fashioned. Stuck in a much earlier era where such things were never mentioned).

In any event anyone interested in the sights & local history of Brisbane would find the early chapters interesting. To some extent it mirrors many outback towns and the pervading feeling that life in them wasn’t real, that REAL LIFE was out there, over in Europe. For many Australian men both wars (however hideous in outcomes were) in the beginning spelt escape and freedom. That feeling is what powered “Johnno”. I can’t deny in myself that the feeling that the Antipodes is at the bottom of the world, & that we are secluded from things. I think for many Australians there is still that need.

Anyhooo onwards….

Johnno and Dante. Who are they?

You can almost smell the anticipation and burning need of these two young men to escape the small country town of Brisbane – to experience something “other”. Johnno is adventurous, the appointed class clown at school, the rebel – never likely to do well – of course he is not from the middle class ranks like Dante whose father was too old to go to war. Johnno’s father went to war and never came back. Missing. Dante was the studious, cautious one. Though they both graduate university, Johnno’s interest is geology and books (highly unexpected considering his poverty). Rimbaud and Baudelaire are books he pressures Dante to read although Dante had not explored them, had no passion to find them himself. Johnno longs for culture which Brisbane doesn’t have and he leaves for Paris and places exotic. Mining guides his choices.

Dante’s future is less clearly defined. He seems to have no desire to leave or explore but eventually Dante follows Johnno to Paris.The visit isn’t successful. Neither find in the other what they wanted. Dante teaches in the UK for a while and ends up in an office back in Brisbane. Their time together throughout the book centers on the great male Australian tradition of drinking and to a lesser extent visiting brothels and dare devil acts of defiance. Johnno often wants to burn buildings down somehow to quell his rage against what? – Dante is never sure. Their relationship is bound up in yearning, and regret.

Malouf totally denies that Johnno is a gay novel but both the main characters =seem to pine for each other in each other’s absence. The cover photograph reminds one of the white Oxford style clothing as represented in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh that is/was for a time synonymous with gay male culture especially pre-WW2. So I do wonder about the publisher’s choice of photograph.

” Readers of a later and more knowing time have taken this to be a gay novel in disguise. It is not. If I had meant to write a gay novel I would have done so. If there was more to tell about these characters I would have told it.”- Malouf


In the end I am saddened. Life seems to cave in on Dante - he is captured by Brisbane. Johnno has a fatal accident rather than be captured. Before the accident he sends one more letter to Dante expressing his love. When you read that you realise the love between them that you sensed throughout was there, even if Malouf will continue to deny it. I think in many ways Malouf is as old fashioned as my father.
( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
I read this while flying to and from Brisbane, to get a feel for the city. However the Brisbane referred to is no longer in evidence and the writer does allude to the beginning of the development which has obviously occurred. I enjoyed this gentle but some what tragic tale of growing up in Brisbane during the war years and of an erratic friendship between the narrator, nicknamed Dante and the title character Johnno.
Johnno, dubbed a 'clown', a 'ratbag' and bad company seems bent on self desruction from the outset.
Dante is drawn to his side and tries to protect Johnno from himself and see him safely home from many of his rampages. We follow these two through their uneven friendship and coming of age to manhood.
I quote from 'The Age' - this is "an affectionate bittersweet portrait". ( )
  HelenBaker | Aug 28, 2011 |
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I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! Make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable.
~ Shakespeare
For Carlo Olivieri
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My father was one of the fittest men I have ever known. (Prologue)
He was the class madcap.
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"Despite Johnno's assertion that Brisbane was absolutely the ugliest place in the world, I had the feeling as I walked across deserted intersections, past empty parks with their tropical trees all spiked and sharp-edged in the early sunlight, that it might even be beautiful ... " Johnno is a typical Australian who refuses to be typical. His disorderly presence can disturb the staleness of his home town or destroy the tranquillity of a Greek landscape. An affectionately outrageous portrait, David Malouf's first novel recreates the war-conscious forties, the pubs and brothels of the fifties, and the years away treading water overseas.

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