Men behaving badly in a novel that eviscerates the privileged

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Judas Boys
Joel Deane
Hunter, $27.97

For admirers of Anna Kavan, best known for Ice (a surreal post-nuclear feminist novel which feels more like a medieval poem than a conventional dystopia), it is always delightful to encounter someone else who has read her work. Her most famous book is one of the main motifs in Joel Deane’s graceful new novel, Judas Boys.

Like the ice of Kavan’s novel, the world is closing in on Deane’s protagonist, Pinnock. And though ice is rarely seen in Melbourne, the upper-middle-class suburbia of the book is emotionally frozen to its core. Pinnock (“Pin”) has been dismissed as a staffer in Canberra, but we do not know why. He faces opprobrium from all quarters: his ex-wife Jill; his daughter Anna, a devotee of Kavan, and his old schoolfriend and boss Cox, now a government minister.

It will surprise no one reading Judas Boys that Joel Deane is a poet.Credit:

In desolating circumstances, Pinnock experiences a cascade of memories in which he eventually takes solace. Most of his flashbacks are to formative years at St Jude’s, a Catholic private school, and in particular to his friendship with fellow student OB (O’Brien), who, as we know from the start, took his own life at 19.

This is a spare and elusive book. There is sleight of hand in the structure, which moves backwards and forwards in time and leaves copious space for readers’ imaginations. It will surprise no one that Deane is best known as a poet – the prose is winnowed, the settings evoked in cool noir-like detail.

In the St Jude’s chapters, Deane shows us the alternate vulnerability and brutality of boys being groomed for power, boys whose pride and egos depend on concealing – in some cases strangling – their own humanity. That characters in a cut-throat environment are drawn with realism and even tenderness is one of the book’s strongest achievements.

St Jude’s anticipates an all-too-familiar Australian political and social elite. Cox is at the top of the pecking order. “Cox is a trophy hunter,” Pinnock explains. Such entitlement becomes chilling when Cox casually reveals to Pinnock graphic rape and domination fantasies about OB’s mother. It is one of many examples of violence intruding on a veneer of innocence and is portrayed without a flinch.

Some elements of the book are more personal to our protagonist. The adult Pin is racked with guilt over his professional failures and OB’s death. The younger Pin is haunted by his Catholic mother’s emotional abuse and takes refuge in the more comforting, though equally dangerous, attentions of OB’s mother. No one in the book is very likeable, yet all are human in their desires and resentments.

The chapters in which Pinnock stays with the O’Brien family at their leafy home are especially memorable. There is, of course, dysfunction beneath the comfort. Mrs O’Brien is trapped in an unhappy marriage, lacks boundaries and flirts with Pin. The focus she gives him is disturbing on several levels, one of them being that she does not seem nearly so interested in her own son.

Both O’Brien parents have succumbed to a lassitude and nihilism that they take out on their child. The intricacies of emotional abuse are portrayed plausibly, with a skilful combination of precision and mystery. These are fascinatingly labile, twisted people who seem to do damage to each other no matter their intentions.

Deane weaves in some clever asides to readers. Mrs O’Brien says of an apartment block overlooking their pool, “I wonder … who lives up there and what they see when they look down on us. Do they envy us? Pity us? … Are they up there listening to us like suburban gods?”

Readers too may well look on these characters, as isolated from one another as the manicured homes they inhabit, with a combination of those feelings. A subplot in the adult Pinnock’s broken life involves his trans daughter Anna, and culminates in a stinging twist that underlines the gulf Pin has created between himself and his own family.

The malice of Deane’s characters can be exhausting. You do long for them to show kindness to one another, and the relationship between Pinnock and his ex in particular can feel a little same-noted in its acrimony. But it is that bleakness that permits a redemptive final chapter about OB, which could have been sentimental but instead feels earned and satisfying.

OB is as realistic a character as any, but towards the end seems also to symbolise lost innocence and the absolution that even the most messed up people can find in love.

Judas Boys certainly gives the middle finger to any lingering notion of noblesse oblige. Deane writes with seriousness and urgency and subtlety about people stunted by privilege, callously tearing themselves apart. It is no surprise that Pin looks back to a time when the future still seemed full of promise. His failure is not simply personal; it is that of an entire class.

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