George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan
Mark Read is at it again. A convicted criminal, affectionately known as “Chopper” following an incident in which he had his ears cut off in order to be removed from a particular prison environment, Read has done just about everything possible to shock the Australian public. He’s been a wanted stand-over man, supposedly having killed (or at least maimed) several underground associates, presented himself on television discussing the wonders of popping people’s toes off, and become an astoundingly successful author of 10 best-selling books about his life. So, how does a man such as this upset the national consciousness following such a career? How does he get attention again?
Why, he writes a children’s book, of course. And not just any children’s book, a 16th century fable in which its hero stabs a man in the head 21 times. Perfect.
But, let’s be honest, while Hooky the Cripple may very well be marketed in the form of a kid?s book, what with its relatively tiny dimensions, large print and simple message of tolerance, it’s really a book for adults who will understand the humour in the disposition of its protagonist. Therefore, it’s a book adults may pick up for the novelty value of it being “Chopper’s latest”, yet its kiddie-book disguise isn’t enough to shroud the message held within it—a message perhaps adults need to learn more than anyone else.
Poor Hooky is the son of a beautiful prostitute, named Madonna, in 16th century Sicily. Madonna is despised in the small community for her exquisite looks, which cause even the local priests eyes to wander her way. Because of this, she is banished from the church, doomed to spend much of her early days pleasuring the town’s men-folk. She soon falls pregnant to any one (if not all) of these men and gives birth to Hooky.
The kid’s life is tainted from its very beginnings. Add to this an horrendous hunchback and a funny walk, as well as a reputation for being the ugliest young man for miles, and it’s obvious he won’t be winning any popularity contests. His main adversary is Manuello the Butcher, who beats Hooky on a regular basis each time the young man passes his shop. One day, after years of such persecution, Hooky is pushed too far—he pulls out a large knife and kills his tormentor. Taken to court, Inquisition-style, he is defended by the greatest lawyer in all the land, Giovanno from Milano and, thanks to the effectiveness Giovanno’s controversial courtroom techniques, is acquitted.
And so we learn, that we all, indeed, have limits. While Hooky is pushed to the point that he takes his anger out brutally, surely, we as adults are able to realise that like any great fairytale, Grimm or otherwise, the message is a lot deeper, using upfront, obvious and often gruesome imagery (thanks to Adam Cullen’s deliriously grotesque illustrations) to make what is a much more subtle point. Gruesome or not, Chopper’s simple message rests in the fact that we shouldn’t discriminate against people, even if they are they freakish son of the town whore.
Similar also to the great fairy tales of yore, is Chopper’s ability not to rely on the saccharine to endear his characters to the reader. The story is never drowned in an overdose of it’s ideals, or clouded due to the author’s own take on who his characters are. Chopper lays down the facts only, allowing (well, hoping) the reader will then draw his own conclusions as to the barbarity of Hooky’s actions towards Manuello the Butcher, and whether or not he deserved to have his brains leak out on the sidewalk. It’s as simple as that.
Chopper’s lack of sugary sympathy mixed with Hooky’s pathetic-ness, effectively endear the reader to his plight. He is never described as someone to be pitied, or someone who deserves anything more than the right to walk down the street without getting the shit beat out of him. Chopper even goes so far, at times, as to describe Hooky in all his horrid glory, consistently referring to him as Madonna’s “hunchback bastard cripple son”. He often reiterates, also, how ugly Hooky is, and how bizarre he looks compared to his fellow Sicilians.
This no-holds-barred, upfront attitude as well as Chopper’s egotism and sarcastic wit, juxtaposed with his over-simplified world view succeed in making Hooky a charming tale reminiscent of the old-time fairy-stories-with-a-moral we were told as kids, like The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse or The Tortoise and the Hare. It’s less a literary tale, and more a retelling of a story Chopper may very well have heard when he was a kid warning him against discrimination.
Chopper, like Hooky, has never asked for any kind of sympathy, forever presenting himself (a criminal, and, dare I remind you, a cripple) as just like anyone else. Sure he has his shocking moments, but he’s really just a good bloke in a bad situation, doing what has to be done when it has to be done, whether or not that means popping someone’s toes off.