Denise Young’s The Last Ride is the story of 10-year-old Chook and his dad, Kev, on the run from the law in rural Australia. Kev’s just beaten hell out of Max, the twosome’s friend and landlord, and now they’re ducking and diving the police, stealing and scavenging their way to, well, anywhere that’s warm. Chook’s not exactly thrilled about his part in the journey, wanting desperately to head home and see if Max is okay. Kev, on the other hand, is fairly sure Max won’t be waking up, and is ready to do whatever is necessary to escape capture. Keeping a low profile, though, is hard for Kev, what with his stiff hatred for authority, cruel sense of humour and nasty temper consistently threatening his and Chook’s trek.
As a one-time prison literacy tutor, Denise Young should be the perfect person to relate stories of Aussie misfits existing on the fringes of society, but instead of using her experiences to do this, she pours on the “poor me”, littering her book with clichés about screwed up families and cycles of violence. The book suffers from a distinct lack of focus with Young confused as to what she’s trying to say: Does she want sympathy for guys like Kev and kids like Chook, or is she just letting us know they exist and that they need our help? At story’s end, with the author’s tendency to load her dialogue with exposition and alter her characters’ motives and objectives when it suits, we’re left with no real understanding as to why we should care either way.
Young’s Kev is an abusive and hateful man who bashes people at random and constantly belittles his son. He’s a guy who openly hates “fags”, women, and “coppers,” and may just have killed the one person who ever gave him a break. He’s a horrible man with no redeeming qualities yet somehow Young wants us to feel bad for him, going out of her way to rationalize his behaviour. We get his rotten childhood thrown at us, and stories about how his dad tried to run him down with a truck and stab him. She blames his detachment from society on his being “dragged all over the countryside so I never felt part of nothing”, and attempts to scrounge respect for him by revealing that ol’ Max may have had it coming.
Endearing the reader to the abuser by making us loathe his victim is insulting and succeeds only in enlightening the reader further to what this guy is—a beast who’ll blame his situation on whoever’s standing in front of him. It’s tired notion that demonstrates how utterly incapable the author is of rendering a personality as complex as Kev’s. The author has clearly heard her share of sob stories from inmates and wants only to champion the self-awareness of some of them rather than challenge their idea that a bad upbringing is a license to be an asshole.
Young’s treatment of her main protagonist is just as superficial. She endears us to Chook before sharply altering his character thus negating all we’ve come to learn and understand about him. The book’s lack of focus is evident again with its good egg, its apparent hope, suddenly shifting from a caring, compassionate, thoughtful daydreamer into a brute simply for the author to reiterate her point about cycles of violence. It doesn’t ring true—especially after he’s just spent 240 pages questioning his dad’s actions and shying away from his influences. The wheels of fate, apparently, turn swiftly in Young’s world.
The author is correct when she asserts that fringe-dwelling families like Chook and Kev’s need help, but, like everyone else, they’ve got to be worthy of it and the characters in The Last Ride aren’t. Young raises many questions regarding the state of welfare families existing in dying communities throughout rural Oz, but instead of investigating the cause and effect in these families she belabors the notion that behavior like Kev’s, to some extent, is excusable due to pitiable circumstances. She skips the important and potentially tricky points (such as the relationship between Chook and Max which is exploited to gain sympathy for Kev and little else) to press on with her surface ones. Violence begets violence—got it. Now try telling me why.
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