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David Malouf: Johnno

This novel is one of those joyous autobiographical growing-up stories, about a young man from Brisbane and how he actually likes Brisbane, with all its foibles and seediness. He spots the details, he enjoys his multitudinous family and the various characters of his neighbourhood. Even when away from Brisbane in Europe, he still misses it and surprises himself and others that he wants to return. The pubs and clubs, the brothels, even the old tram, all are joyously remembered. But, despite the love for Brisbane, this book is more of a tribute to one of its inhabitants, Johnno. Johnno is a larger than life character whom our narrator gets to know at school. Johnno is one of those boys everyone wants to be friends with and he has his hangers-on, whom he frequently abuses. He breaks the rules, makes fun of the teachers and generally behaves badly. Gradually, our narrator becomes friends with him. At first, they are a bit distant with one another but, gradually, they become firm friends. Our well-behaved narrator follows Johnno’s path to bad behaviour – getting drunk, visiting brothels and generally being less than a perfect son to his well-meaning parents. The book follows their friendship, including how it copes with their love affairs, their respective travels – Johnno seems to end up in remote places such as the back end of the Congo. But all the time there is this special warmth between them that brings them back together. Johnno continues to misbehave – burning down churches, doing drugs, for example, but remains both loveable but somewhat mysterious. Even his death is mysterious. Was it an accident or suicide? Whatever, it was, it prompts the narrator to remember Johnno and tell a fine tale about him.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by University of Queensland Press