For those considering reading a book by Christos Tsiolkas, whose most recent novel, The Slap, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, a few friendly words of advice. Do not read any of his novels if you:
– Are homophobic
– Are easily offended by frequent sex, drugs and bad language
– Feel faint at the mention of blood, let alone the sight of it
– Are eating your dinner
– Believe Neighbours is a realistic depiction of life in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs
Still with me? Then let’s get to it…
The Jesus Man is Tsiolkas’ follow up to his debut novel Loaded, and it again takes us into the heart of Melbourne and its multicultural, ethnically and sexually diverse inhabitants. The story is related through the voices of several characters, central among them the three Stefano brothers. Dom, Tommy and Lou are half-Italian, half-Greek Australians growing up against a background of social deterioration and global history, struggling to find a suitable identity, each falling in turn into a world of cheap, sordid sex, pornography and drug abuse. As we hear from each of the brothers, we see the similarities in the choices they make, but also the differences: for one of the brothers, these differences have tragic consequences.
Tommy is the cursed one of the family (although, if you believe the stories about the crow, said to follow the males of the family around, all of them are cursed), a middle child who struggles to cope with reality. Unable to get on properly with his elder brother, on the verge of unemployment because of a downturn in the economy (and working in an obsolete profession) and with severe body-image issues, he begins a long, slow spiral down into self-abuse, addiction to pornography and an inability to cope with daily life.
World news, filtered through the flickering television screen in his apartment, combines with the events of his personal life, leading up to an unavoidable culmination of events. Stretched so far, it is clear that, sooner or later, Tommy will crack. The final catalyst for his ruin comes when Tommy meets a crazed, born-again Christian, who tells him that the Apocalypse is coming. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the war in the Gulf (and Collingwood winning a Premiership!), it’s no wonder Tommy starts believing in the End of Days…
While Tommy’s story is the centre of the book, the section narrated by Lou, his little brother, is equally fascinating. Through the first few parts of the novel, Lou is occasionally mentioned as a minor character, a kid in the background of his brothers’ stories. However, it is only when we get to hear his version of events that we begin to realise the full extent of the effect Tommy’s behaviour has had. By the time the story has reached its end, you start to wonder whether the Stefano men really are cursed.
As mentioned above (and in my other reviews of Tsiolkas’ novels), this is not a writer who shies away from graphic descriptions of sex and violence – one of which forms the pivotal moment of the book, a scene that you will not forget in a hurry. He manages to get under the reader’s skin, and into his characters’ minds, leaving you breathless at times as you try to keep up with Tommy’s head-long descent into hell. The constant random sex and masturbation does pall after a while; however, that is probably the point. Tommy’s attempts to solve his problems with pornographic videos end, like everything else, in failure.
One of the reasons I like Tsiolkas’ books is the insight they give into Australian life and the goings-on in my adopted home town of Melbourne. It’s no coincidence that the story begins with one notorious political event, the sacking of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, and ends with another, the rise of extreme right-wing politician Pauline Hanson at the 1996 Federal Election. The juxtaposition of one of the giants of Australian politics with one of its most reviled and ridiculed figures is surely no coincidence, the decline in the nation’s political life mirroring Tommy’s own fall. The growth of Melbourne itself is also evident, with Tommy’s horror at moving to the Eastern suburbs (Blackburn, about twenty minutes from the city), compared to Dom’s later purchase of a house in Ringwood (about twice as far away). I, coincidentally, live even further out, proof that the shift to the suburbs continues today…
The Jesus Man is a good example of Tsiolkas’ style and themes, containing ideas reflected in his other three novels. The depiction of a hedonistic lifestyle is, as mentioned, reminiscent of his debut novel Loaded while the use of multiple voices to narrate the novel foreshadows the way The Slap is constructed. However, the most interesting link to another book is the relevance of religion and superstition, a subject covered in even more depth in his following work, Dead Europe. The comparison of the all-seeing eye of God (and the icon of the Virgin Mary watching over Tommy) with the sinister crow, a sign of retribution from Aboriginal mythology, perfectly reflects the awkward mix of influences the ethnically-blended family consists of. When you add the third element of the influential trinity, the hissing, ever-present television in Tommy’s room, you have three ambivalent guardians watching over the poor, confused soul.
The Jesus Man is a wonderful book (even if it will make you watch Neighbours with a slightly more critical eye in future), and Tsiolkas is a very talented writer. Even though I don’t think The Slap was quite as good as it could have been, I’ll be eagerly awaiting whatever he produces next. There’s just one thing I’m worried about though. While there is obviously a lot of Tsiolkas in his books, I just hope that it’s not all autobiographical – I wouldn’t wish some of the things Tommy and his family go through on anyone…
Thanks to Golda from Random House (Vintage) Australia for the review copy 🙂