All of a sudden there is a flow of books in that rare literary genre—the Australian political novel. Flow. Well, a few.
My bedside table includes Sulari Gentill’s, A Few Right Thinking Men, Nicholas Hasluck’s, Dismissal, John M. Green’s, Born to Run, Anna Funder’s, All That I Am and added just last night, Elliot Perlman’s, The Street Sweeper.
I still can’t talk about political novels without thinking of Dal Stivens’ classic, Jimmy Brockett and the gutsy energy of his rogue entrepreneur and the political corruption of Sydney (what changes?) in the early decades of the 20th century.
There is the opening chapter’s absolutely memorable anecdote: two cemetery workers discuss Jimmy Brockett’s instruction to the undertaker in his will that he should be buried, ‘on my face so that anyone who doesn’t like this will can kiss my arse’.
Another of my markers among the slim ranks of Australian political novels is Frank Hardy’s devastatingly honest dissection of life in the Communist Party in But the Dead are Many. A marker of political novels because it is free of the constricting ideology that Hardy knew so well as a passionate activist.
Nicholas Hasluck’s birthright is politics so the knowing quality ofDismissal is not surprising. He sticks fairly closely to the infamous sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975 complete with inside touches.
What is surprising in Dismissal is the awkward handling of Hasluck’s parallel story of Soviet penetration of the Australian diplomatic service. An accomplished novelist, Hasluck’s characters—as real as some of them are in life—are hard to believe because of his failure to make their motivation convincing.
But motivation, the backbone of political novels, is their most elusive quality.
As a political thriller, Green’s Born to Run, has the requisite trappings of American politics. Green’s knowledge of arcane elements of the American Constitution is enormously impressive and essential to the intricacies of the first woman’s hazardous race to the White House. ‘All great fun’, for the ABC’s Jennifer Byrne but a puzzle is only a puzzle.
It is reach into the life of politics that is the measure of the political novel.
The contemporary novelist who achieves that to a high order is someone whose work is barely known here—the American writer, Ward Just.
Just has 14 novels, three collections of short stories and a play behind him in some 40 years of writing.
Like others Just’s apprenticeship was journalism. Political writing in particular. He worked in Washington as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post.
For decades now we have travelled together through his books after I came across his first short story collection when I worked in Canberra. The collection was called, The Congressman who Loved Flaubert.
Just’s fiction is political and set against the backdrop of his home city, Chicago and Cold War America.
In describing his own political fiction in a rare interview a few years ago on the Website, Bookslut, he provides as universal description as any:
… I believe all my books, without exception, take place in a specific timeframe of people who are very aware of their political surroundings. They’re people who know who their senator is, who know who their congressman is — God knows they know who the president and vice-president are. They’re worldly people, they have some knowledge of the world.
Now back to the bedside cache.
Brian Francis Johns AO was an Australian company director and journalist, who was managing director of the Special Broadcasting Service 1987–92 and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1995–2000