Return Ticket by Jon Doust

A man stands on a cliff in the Middle East looking out of a red/orange sandy landscape into the distance. The text reads: Return Ticket by Jon Doust, a novel from the author of Boy on a Wire, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Return Ticket is the third book in a ‘loose trilogy’ entitled One Boy’s Journey to Man and tells the final part of the story of Jack Muir.  The earlier books Boy on a Wire and To the Highlands respectively relate Jack’s experiences at an exclusive private boys’ school in Perth, and then in New Guinea where he spent the beginning of his adult life.

Return Ticket opens with Jack in Kincannup [the Noongar name for Albany WA] washing dishes.  He muses that he may wash the dishes the way he does ‘because it suggests a way [he] might have lived – ordered, structured, careful and meditative’ [9].  According to Jack, whether it is a spoon, a fork or a plate ‘each item is a keeper of memories’ [8].  The reader can confidently infer from these few words that the story as it unfolds will be both far from ordered and structured and will be a memoir.

The book moves between times and places – from Kincannup in 2018 to Durban in 1972 to Israel in 1973 and other places and times in between – and from first to third person.  While the fluidity in times may suggest confusion, that is far from the case.  The story as it unfolds is a carefully nuanced tale of a young man searching for meaning in his life and an understanding of the demons with which he struggles.  His father – while generally a loving father – was emotionally withdrawn and a firm believer in corporal punishment.  His mother – also a loving parent – came from an abusive family and suffered from depression.  Jack has two brothers both of whom who barely appear in the novel other than as the subject of an occasional reference to them being settled and successful.

The later-dated sections record Jack’s experiences as an older man looking back with some bemusement on his younger self and the choices and decisions he made.  To balance perhaps the errors of judgement the young Jack made, the older Jack remembers the love he shared with two women in particular and the depths of male friendship he experienced as only the young can.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was de rigueur for young adults to travel from Australia to London almost as a rite of passage to what was believed to be the centre of youth culture.  Beginning as he means to continue, on his way to London, Jack gets off the ship on a stopover in Durban South Africa and doesn’t get back on. Instead, he commences a meandering journey through the Badlands of South Africa and further north – eventually making his way to a kibbutz in Israel.  But not before he spends nine months ‘living a self-indulgent and degraded life in a police state’ where ‘we smoked dope, ate yoghurt and ice-cream’ [57].

It is at the kibbutz where he learns about the socialist dream – ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ [58].  The reality though is somewhat different.  Jack experiences ‘the classic response of the spoilt children of capitalist accumulators’ where some members of the kibbutz give nothing and demand everything.  But it is on the kibbutz where he falls in love with a young Jewish fighter Neeva whom he later marries and they return to Australia.  Neeva’s mother – initially resistant to her daughter marrying a goyim – becomes an important figure in Jack’s life alongside his own mother Glorvina.

It is interesting to note that some sections of the book are written in the first person while the remainder is written in the third person.  There appears to be no pattern regarding which are which as the various sections set in – for example Israel – are written in both.  Perhaps a pattern exists in the mind of the author.  Whatever the reason, it does not detract from the quality of the narrative – it simply means that the sections written in the first person have an immediacy of impact slightly greater than those written in the third person.

The title of the trilogy – One Boy’s Journey to Man – is a clear indication of where this book is heading.  How it gets there – or more accurately how Jack gets there – is beautifully realised in this narrative about how the persons we love and who love us can steer us towards a better life.  Jack does not gloss over the more unsavoury aspects of his life – he readily acknowledges his mistakes and his bad behaviour – but he also acknowledges his better moments.

It may be tempting to presume that the novel is a thinly disguised autobiography as the author’s own story is similar to Jack’s – see below.  That, however, may be jumping to a conclusion too far and it is better I think for the reader to appreciate the novel as it is presented.

Return Ticket is well worth the reading and it is highly recommended.

Jon Doust has written three novels.  He was born into a farming and retail family in Western Australia but, as a young man, headed to South Africa and Israel.  He later studied at Curtin University and gained an Arts degree in English.  He now lives in Kincannup – generally known as Albany – which he has loved since he was a child.

Return Ticket

[2020]

Jon Doust

Fremantle Press

ISBN 978 1925 81639 6

$29.99; 264pp

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