Review: Kicking in Danger, by Alan Wearne (Black Pepper Press)

Black Pepper has rapidly emerged as perhaps Australia’s most vigorous small press publisher of poetry, presenting, to deserved acclaim, the work of poets such as Louis de Paor and Emma Lew, but what has been less remarked upon has been its growing fiction list.

This volume is the press’s eighth venture into fiction and while it makes no claim to be serious ‘high literature’, it is great fun to read and should sell well, especially in those parts of Australia where Australian Rules football is a dominant feature of the culture. The timing of its release, in the weeks leading up to the AFL finals, will no doubt help sales.

Alan Wearne belongs to that group of writers and other intellectuals, mostly based in Melbourne and mostly (but by no means exclusively) male, for whom Aussie Rules is more than a casual interest and slightly less than a religion. To his credit, he is not. unlike what appears to be a majority of that group, a Carlton supporter.

Indeed, the hero of this novel. Damicn Chubb, Australia’s (the world’s?) first private eye specialising in sports, is a former Essendon ruckman of somewhat minor repute, who has named his son Alex Bluey Barry (after the famous half-back line of ’62). Every Victorian club, however, gets a mention and is apportioned at least one character who is either a supporter, a former player or an official. It should be pointed out that the phrase ‘Victorian club’ is a crucial one, and that these clubs include South Melbourne and Fitzroy.

The significance of this, for those who do not follow the indigenous game, is that, although Kicking in Danger is set in the early 1990s, there is no mention of the AFL’s interstate teams, and the expansion which began with the Swans migrating to Sydney a decade earlier is only mooted in the book as a rumour too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Wearne wears his heart on his sleeve as a footy fan of the nostalgic persuasion, a traditionalist who is set against the economic rationalism which is turning the game into just another arm of the media moguls’ entertainment empires, but he doesn’t preach about this. Instead, he chooses to construct a hybrid world of fantasy and reality which the reader can take as given and within which his cast of characters can be humanly real, rather that the cyphers on corporate notepads that their ‘real-life’ counterparts too after are.

While there are some characters based quite firmly on living people, and while real footballers, past and present, are mentioned, what Wearne has quite cleverly done is distil the essence of each club’s image into one or two characters. Thus former Geelong player Alistair Arbuthnol is an urbane, tweedy, old-wealth anachronism from the Western Districts, whereas Lenny Hell, the wise, kind-hearted, softly spoken, modest publican of a modest pub, used lo play for Fitzroy.

There is plenty, too, of the world outside football. Crucial to the novel’s plot are the Koori Lesbian Kollective, computerised astrology, a particularly nasty bunch of racist, anti-football skinheads, and CNN. For all its elements of farce, and for all that it should appeal to those whose only contact with literature is reading the Footy Record, this book does not avoid issues of political, economic, even philosophical significance. And for all that the world of footy is a macho domain, it is women who emerge as the stronger sex, and it is a woman who, in one of the book’s funniest scenes, turns the Brownlow Medal award ceremony into a massive land rights demonstration.

I have-a minor quibble with the number of misprints and misspellings. The consistent use of ‘loose’ for ‘lose’, ‘Princess Park’ for ‘Princes Park’ (which may, on second thoughts, have been an intentional dig at Carlton). some fairly haphazard scattering of commas, and most heinous of all to a Tasmanian reader, ‘Daryl’ instead of Darryl Baldock, perhaps betray an unfortunate haste in production. But these are outweighed by some great one-liners, such as ‘Football has an entire academic underclass’. ‘There are no Pie [Collingwood, for the uninitiated] supporters, there are only Pie fanatics’, and the advice given to Chubb at one stage to ‘just sit here, beating-up your memories for Truth or Playboy or Meanjin.’

Alan Wearne has established a reputation as a major Australian poet and his verse novel The Nightmarkets is a tour de force. Kicking in Danger probably won’t even make it on to the interchange bench of the Ozlit canon, but then literature is like football in that you can have a great time watching the minor leagues.