Ugly Australians

[10 July 2008]

By David Pullar

Sam De Brito keeps a blog called All Men Are Liars over at the Sydney Morning Herald website.  It’s popular and very interactive.  He posts most days with something provocative, usually about masculinity and gender issues, and his sizable readership will run with it for a few hundred comments.

I read it pretty regularly, not without a certain guilt.  The generalizations about gender roles can be pretty crude and it’s mostly entertaining from a voyeuristic angle.  Occasionally he’s right on the money and it’s those moments of insight that keep me coming back.

Now he’s branched out into fiction with a novel called The Lost Boys.  De Brito has tried his hand at a book before: No Tattoos Before You’re Thirty is a little pocket-sized volume of advice that Sam would give his unborn (and unconceived) offspring.  Now he’s trying something more ambitious.

If you’ve read All Men Are Liars for any length of time, you’ll have a pretty clear idea what’s in store.  Sam’s not shy about talking up his past and there’s a strong autobiographical element to The Lost Boys.  Young blokes go out, do stupid things, keep doing stupid things and wake up in their thirties wondering what happened.  There’s a lot of sex, drugs and general misbehavior.

I’ve picked up a copy in a bookshop, flicked through it and put it back on the shelf on a few occasions.  I’m sure there are some interesting insights into the psyche of young Australian men, but the passages I’ve read are so full of misogyny and unrelenting squalor that I just couldn’t be bothered.

That’s the problem with “gritty” literature.  In some shorter art forms, say films or photography or journalism, grime and unpleasantness can be exciting—over a 400 page book, it can be draining.

That might be worth it for a brilliant statement about society, but De Brito doesn’t really speak for Australian Masculinity, if there is such thing.  He speaks for a subculture of lower middle-class urban thirtysomethings, the products of a very specific time and place.  There are any number of Aussie males who would struggle to see much of themselves in these lost boys.  There are big themes involved, but they tend to get buried in all the extreme behavior.

Most of us have a tendency to universalize our experiences and writers only more so.  It goes something like “I’m a man, therefore this is what men are.”  Maybe De Brito’s goal is something less grand, but from his blog and the publicity around the book, it seems as if he’s trying to take the pulse of an entire gender.

Who will The Lost Boys appeal to?  Probably not the Maroubra Beach toughs that De Brito is depicting.  Readers of new Australian fiction tend to be a more sensitive lot.  Maybe a lot of men will read it with a sigh of relief, “Thank God I’m not like that.”  I don’t think that was the author’s point.

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