Reviewed by Ian Lipke
One of the best-known film stars that Australia has produced is Bryan Brown. Star of Breaker Morant and A Town Like Alice in the 1980s and involvement in a string of hits since then, Brown is a very experienced performer, having appeared in over eighty films and worked in something like twenty-five countries. AACTA recognized his contribution to the Arts with the prestigious Longford Lyell Award in 2018. Now he has turned his talents to writing. I wonder why.
Reviewers can only speculate, of course, but a good reason might be the devastating effects of the Covid-19 virus on all economies across the world. With cultural outlets shut and men and women’s mobility severely restricted by government regulations, it is understandable that talented people would turn their minds to other jurisdictions. Creative minds and ordinary minds alike don’t like to be locked down, which after a time, feels locked in, especially when the alternative is a fine or being locked up.
How well has Bryan Brown handled the change? His book is a collection of short stories. I know that because I found a brief reference to ‘gritty, raw and sometimes very funny stories’ in the blurb on the back cover. Until I noticed that brief comment, I assumed I was about to begin reading a novel. To be quite open I would much prefer never being called on to critique short stories. Too many changes of scene, different characters, a new plot to master, all changes that destroy cohesion and rhythm – these are the things that plague the short story reviewer.
Brown’s title page should never have left the publishing house. The author’s name in large, bold yellow leads the reader to think that this will be a book about the author. But that leaves an unexplained ‘sweet Jimmy” and the curious positioning of an orchid that might or might not exude an odour that explains the ‘sweet’ attachment to the word ‘Jimmy’ Several pages in, Brown has virtually repeated his title page, plastering it with bold, black ink. Bryan Brown … Crime has many faces – revenge is one … Sweet Jimmy. All that made me assume now that the title of a short story I was about to read was Sweet Jimmy, but that was an incorrect assumption. The stories were listed in a Table of Contents on the next page and bear next to no relationship to all the noise at the beginning of the book.
Boys will be Killers was the title of the first, and it was very readable. Brown writes in a spare style, supplying a cryptic presentation almost. The pace moves along and proves to be coherent and interesting. The book is constructed in large part of short, simple sentences, that begin as attractive but, as time passes, become onerous and ‘gimmicky’.
It’s a fair bet that most readers will note the difficulty in keeping track when players, among a multiplicity of characters, are called by similar names (Jerry and Jimmy and Janine, for example). Humorous interchanges are frequent, but narrow. Brown’s subtleties and Australianisms (change a light bulb, for example, or ‘when he wanted something in return, they wouldn’t come across’) join dry dialogue (and/or description), delivered as only a native Australian can, is hilariously funny. At the same time, the author, if his name were not so well known, would sell few copies in the USA where anything funny has to operate at face value. His book would never be noticed.
I would love to award Sweet Jimmy a big tick, but I can’t do it. The book does not match the plaudits on the cover. It’s easy to get Johnny and Jimmy confused. Who is doing the killing – Johnny because Mrs Harris would not allow her daughter access to a ‘mere tradie’? Jimmy because he went through girls like a dope smoker goes through papers (15)? Are they both killers? If so, that stretches credibility a bit. Actually, my questions are a little unfair since we recognize the killer very early. Readers simply remain uneasy because of the similarity of names.
This book as described is a bit of a mess, but it is an attractive mess and works to great effect. There are other stories in this same volume that are marked by the same good humour that only Australians understand and react positively to. The final story needs special mention. This is the story of Sweet Jimmy, and I spent many hours attempting to work out what so distinguishes it that the book would be named as it is. My search went unrewarded.
Sweet Jimmy reveals that the author has talent, can produce dazzling humour, has an acerbic wit, but would benefit from the services of a skilled short story writer as tutor and a new, competent graphic artist.
by Bryan Brown
Allen & Unwin
$29.99; 296 pp