- Blessed, by John Doyle. Hachette, $32.99.
This story of the fictional Rampaging Roy Slaven as an adolescent is a memorable read. It is often humorous, as would be expected. It is also very moving in parts, as we read of the early life of the unsurpassable sporting icon, and have filtered glimpses of John Doyle's life.
In case there is a reader who has yet to encounter Roy and HG, they are a pair who host radio and television shows in which sport is most often the focus. The creators of Roy and HG are John Doyle and Greg Pickhaver, who are writers, actors, and comedians (and, I would add, spoken word artists). The fictional HG is a professional sportscaster, whereas Roy has also excelled in every sport played in Australia, with the possible exception of netball. When first heard them in the 1980s, the pair's near-manic commentary was something new and extraordinary.
Blessed is set in 1967, in Lithgow. Roy is dealing with the exigencies of his Catholic boys' school education, a sudden attraction to girls, the changes in popular music and also in the familiar rituals of the church. We are told in the foreword that Roy rang John Doyle and persuaded him to write about this "breakout" year. Indeed, it sometimes becomes difficult to remember that we are reading about a fictional character in a book written by that character's creator.
We are shown details of the real author's life ("Doyle" in the text). Doyle's comparative academic success at school, the profound difficulties experienced by his sister with autism, and his inability to stay long at the crease in cricket are recounted by Roy. It is primarily at these moments that I remembered that the "I" of the text (it is written as an autobiography) is a fictional character. And, of course, the fictional character's description of the author's life is not necessarily as it would be presented, should Doyle write a more conventional autobiography. It's sometimes like falling down a Rooting King-shaped rabbit hole, and the blurred divisions between reality and fantasy both entice and delight.
Roy's amazing ability to play any sport at an advanced (or incredible) level is also a reminder that this is not a real person's autobiography. His average score in cricket is deliciously unbelievable. His miraculous ability to read the ball in rugby league, his skill in picking up a pool cue and clearing the baize, and his tennis touch amazing even John Newcombe, indicate that this can't be a true story. Yet the recollections of his life with his mother, the interference of various priests who hope she will pray for her husband's return (even though he was abusive) are so realistic and moving that the reader soon forgets again that Roy is Doyle's creation.
The changes in appropriate behaviour and expectations for women just beginning in the 1960s are caught well in the story of Roy's mother, who manages to find better employment, and to enjoy a social and creative life as the book progresses. Her ignoring the Church and seeking a civil divorce is part of this aspect of Blessed. She also instructs Roy in rugby league ball skills.
The details of adolescent life in the 1960s are also brought to life in great detail; the endless bike rides to find something to do, the divisions between the Catholic and "Public" kids, the hanging around at the swimming pool, the casual sexism of the time, are believable. They are told in effortless prose, with speech that rings true, something rarely achieved. The boys refer to other places outside Lithgow by their distance to Wollongong; the focus is very much on the one town. Roy has just established how he will go elsewhere by the end of the book.
The cameo of a priest who loses the ability to speak coherently when he is addressing a woman, an annoying and sleazy man who pays court to Roy's mother, and the creative and smelly revenge taken upon him, ensure that the reader will be amused by Blessed. At the same time, another, elderly priest's death is portrayed with great poignancy.
The book ends with Roy simply happy about his life, as his mother drives him through Lithgow. The "blessed" of the title seems to refer not only to his sporting prowess, but to the feeling of joy from his and his mother's life together.
Blessed will appeal to all of us who, at one time or another, have revelled in the controlled anarchy of Roy and HG. However, as a description of young people's lives in the 1960s, and the social changes beginning to reach a comparatively isolated town, it provides a different type of interest. Doyle's ability to evoke life in Lithgow, and the way his fictional character provides his own record of Doyle's life, add complexity to the mix.
A thoroughly enjoyable book, there are many layers to this story of Roy Slaven's breakout year. Doyle shows that his use of language is almost as skillful as that of Slaven's ability on any sporting field.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier