Until recently, I knew of Bruce Pascoe chiefly as one of the commentators who added notes of scholarship to Rachel Perkins’ SBS series First Australians and as the author of The Little Red Yellow Black Book guide to Indigenous culture. In a moment of serendipitous web surfing, I came across a reference to a novel he’d written. Bloke (Penguin, 2009) was described as a thriller, or a mystery, or something similar (I can’t even trace my way back to the moment of discovery). I was intrigued, as I love a good thriller. Much to my surprise, Bloke was available from Amazon’s Kindle Store, and there you go, Bob’s your uncle.
Jim Bloke (yes, that’s his name) is a fisherman living in the East Gippsland town of Nullakarn, and he has a story to tell.
This is the truth.
When people tell a story they’ll change it so they’re more heroic or smarter, but for me, I like to keep it in my head the way it happened. The little accidents that buggered up the most devious planning, the tiny surges of ego that left a trail. I like to relive it in my mind and get it exactly right, because often you think you’re in one story while in fact you’re in someone else’s play. One thing happens, then another, a bit of a mishap leads to a fluke, and suddenly you’re living in a town and with people you hardly know.
There’re a lot of people like that in the fishing industry. One accident short of the Salvo hostel or prison. Like me, except I didn’t know it yet. You start driving down the highway because … well, often there is no because, just a little sidestep and here you are in an unfamiliar town as dark falls, the only lights coming from the takeaway and the pub. There’s always a lot of beetroot and egg in country hamburgers, but light on lettuce so as not to spoil the appearance or test the patience of those who eat with one hand, and laced with salt like a pig’s carcass. Makes you thirsty.
These opening lines, like those of all the best books, capture just about everything that’s to follow. A bit of a mishap leads to a fluke, and more than once before the novel is over, Jim finds himself living somewhere he couldn’t have anticipated in his wildest dreams–not that he’s a man much given to wild dreams. He’s already done a stint in the “big gym” by the time the story opens, and he’s not eager to see the inside again. Basically, he’s looking for a quiet life, enough cash to keep himself fed and dry, and a place where he can stay out of strife.
But from the reference to the “little accidents that buggered up the most devious planning,” you know right from the start that things aren’t going to work out for him like that.
Early on, Jim signs on as a diver harvesting sea urchins off the coast at Nullakarn. And to make sure he doesn’t stick out too far from the other blokes in the town, he plays for the local footy team, despite a degree of indifference in the areas of both interest and talent. But like I said, he’s not looking for any strife.
Unfortunately, there’s plenty of strife to go around, and fortunately, it allows Pascoe to create an entire cast of fabulously entertaining characters right from the start. There’s Miraglia, a drunk who offers Jim a job “only to make a hero of himself in front of the others.” Or his nephew Dominic, known as the Dominator, who takes up using Jim’s shack as a place of assignation with whatever married woman he’s screwing that afternoon. Jim, ever easy to go along, will cook up some spag bol with the wine that Dom brings along with his girl, and the unlikely trio share dinner when the tryst is done.
Then there’s Giovanna, silent, reserved, mysterious, and irresistably beautiful. But distant, which doesn’t stop our Bloke from falling for her hard. And Jim’s no fool, at least about himself. He knows it’s physical; he knows he’s thinking with his dick, but he’s a bloke and that’s what blokes do. There doesn’t seem much sense, or much joy, in fighting it. At first, there doesn’t seem much joy in giving in either, as Giovanna mocks him, holds him off, and disappears without leaving him any clue how to find her. But she always comes back. Sometimes they even go diving together.
This is the general pattern of Jim’s life. He’s earning great money and keeping his head low. When asked to help crew a newly acquired boat down from Singapore, he goes along without asking questions. He’s about to go off on a second such trip when Giovanna turns up again, but this time she comes with a warning. But she arrives too late, and Jim can’t back out. His eyes are opened, though, and he realizes that something’s dodgy, something’s coming out of Singapore that he doesn’t want to be responsible for. Ah. Too Late.
Hoping to avoid getting set up on smuggling charges, Jim and Giovanna flee the country for a good life in La Paz, Bolivia. Sadly, that doesn’t last either, and the couple find themselves extradited back to Victoria, and Jim to another stretch in the gym.
While he’s there another cast of lively, funny characters take him under their wings and when Giovanna manages to spring Jim on bail, his new friends pack him off to a family Jim didn’t even know he had. An orphan who’s made it on his own since getting out of the orphanage, Jim suddenly finds himself hooked up with a set of Uncles and Auntys and set to the discovery of his Aboriginal heritage. At this stage, Bloke takes a distinct swerve away from the story of intrigue and smuggling and violence as Jim tries to navigate the no less treacherous waters of relationships with a crew of family members he didn’t even suspect existed. And Jim being a bloke, or is it a Buloke, which family name itself might be a corruption of “bullocky,” but at any rate, being a bloke, he finds himself in even more trouble when Retha, a cuz who gives Giovanna’s beauty some serious competition, wanders into his life with her little girl. And when Giovanna shows up at the family camp in the bush lands, well, you know the sparks will start flying.
I won’t give away the rest of the plot, because it gets even better as it goes along. Beneath all the thrills and the humor, Bloke is a serious inquiry into heritage and identity that tries to depict how someone who has had his birthright stolen away from him, as little or as much as that may be, and who has been brought up in a culture of staggeringly different values, decides who he is, and who he belongs to. Jim has some hard choices to make, including how to extricate himself from the clutches of the mean-assed smugglers who’ve set him up to take the fall for himself. And how to stay alive in the middle of a literal storm that threatens to smash him, drown him, and take him down.
Best of all, I’ve discovered that there are a dozen more books, both novels and collections of short stories, that Pascoe has published over the past fifteen years, with equally intriguing titles like Fox, Shark, Ribcage, Earth, and Ocean. But if, like me, you’ve never had the pleasure, then Bloke is an excellent place to start exploring.
Below, a link to a video of a lecture Pascoe delivered at AIATSIS in 2010 called “Blokes are Jokes” in which he discusses Bloke and “the difficulty the editor had in accepting the point of view of radical uneducated blackfellas.”