Two wise men

Whenever authors release a new novel, my guess is there are always one or two individuals they would like to read the work, above all other readers. In my case, there were two, who, unfortunately, have both left us.

The first was my father, Stan Doust, an avid reader, who once said to me: “Sometimes I think I would rather have lived a life a bit more like yours.” He died in 2002, on January 26th, a day henceforth remembered as a day to commemorate him.

Stan read everything from Mayan history to Robert Ruark and some days I can see him with his head in Return Ticket, oblivious to all around him.

Then there is Peter Pierce, an admired reviewer for The Age, Australian, Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald and the Sydney Review of Books. He was also an academic and spent time at Monash and James Cook Universities.

He wrote a book on Keneally’s fiction, Australian Melodramas, in 1995. His books include The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia and The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

The one [book] I cherish is From Go to Whoa: A Compendium of the Australian Turf (1994). Peter shared my passion for horse racing. We talked about updating the book together. That will not happen now. Nor will our plan to go to the Melbourne races this spring. The Saturday after Peter’s death was the first one in years that didn’t include our back-and-forth emails over that day’s racing. I missed it sorely.

(Stephen Romei, literary editor, The Australian, 15/9/2018.)

In 1973 he was selected as Tasmania’s Rhodes Scholar and at Oxford he attended Balliol College and completed a MLitt (Master of Letters) with a thesis on the novels of H. Rider Haggard. While there, he met and became a lifelong friend of Kim Beasley.

Why Peter Pierce?

Peter reviewed my first two novels and was kind and considerate of both.

Here is some of what Peter wrote of Boy on a Wire.

Boy on a Wire chooses not to be polished, or preachy. Some of the writing seems hurried and untidy. Yet the mixture of wit and resilience that Jack shows invigorates the story, down to those last two pages that dryly sketch the adult fates of those whom we have met.

In the long literary historical view – when time is given to take it – this will seem another small, but significant shift in the social reckonings that Australian fiction makes.

(Canberra Times, 9/5/2009)

Peter was then an honorary research fellow and professor at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

Boy on a Wire was longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin and favourable reviews were regular. The second novel in the One Boy’s Journey to Man trilogy, however, was not so well received and some reviews completely misunderstood the entire work.

Here is a snippet of a review of To the Highlands from the Adelaide Advertiser, 2012.

A reluctant virgin, he is desperate to add rutting to the drinking and chucking, and is soon introduced to the very basic arts of bedding Island girls. Jack suffers from an inchoate anxiety about the state of the 1968 world, the racism of the colony and occasionally even his own behaviour, but it is hard not to see this book simply as fodder for male readers reliving post-pubescent dreams..

Before we get back to Peter, here are two others.

To the Highlands is Doust firmly establishing himself as a rare contemporary voice with a downbeat, laconic tone from a time before now. (The Weekend Australian)

The novel is drenched in sex and sweat, the precarious lives of those working for a colonial power, and the sadness and grim resolve of locals preparing for their country’s independence. (Sydney Morning Herald)

And here is Peter on the same novel.

After his striking first work of fiction, Boy on a Wire (2007), Jon Doust has taken his time. Five years later, he has delivered the second instalment of what is intended to be a trilogy with the encompassing title ”One Boy’s Journey to Man”.

This is the semi-autobiographical novel To the Highlands whose title pays homage to one of the best-known works of another Western Australian writer – To the Islands by Randolph Stow. Stow is a presence in Doust’s book in another way. His novel Visitants (1979) is one of the few distinguished Australian works to deal with our vast, nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. (To that company belong the fiction of Trevor Shearston, some of James McAuley’s finest poetry, Peter Ryan’s war memoir, Fear Drive My Feet (1959), and, this year, Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain.)

Doust does a fine job of finding and controlling the voice of an 18-year-old, callow but intelligent, one on whom so many experiences are thrust and who is as far from ”neat, tidy and clean people like Rotarians” as it seems possible to be. To the Highlands is a short, dense, assured and incidentally poignant performance that has been worth the wait.

(The Canberra Times, 28/6/2012)

When I read that review, I cried. I found it hard to believe that someone would get most of my references and homages. I thought they would remain secrets that I might trot out in private, sitting with a hot Turkish coffee in hand, chatting to fellow Australian writers, or folk who read widely and had experienced life in a colony.

I wanted to meet Peter, to thank him for his reading, his perspicacity, his understanding and awareness.

With the impending release of Return Ticket, I kept an eye on him, longing for him to remain in the game of reviewing new works and waiting eagerly for my next. I noted he had begun to review for the Sydney Review of Books. I almost sought him out, to let him know I was almost ready with the last in the trilogy.

When I read of his passing, at an all too young 68, I cried again, a selfish kind of cry, because, in a way, I wanted him to be there for me.

After he had gone, I learnt that he never had a driver’s licence and preferred public transport, liked to place a bet at the TAB and followed the AFL team Collingwood.

His friends remembered a man who reminded me somewhat of the other chap at the top of this story, Stan Doust.

In his final decade, Stan and I got on like brothers and I reckon he, and me, and Peter, would have made a fine threesome around a pot of Turkish coffee.

Finally, an excerpt from Kim Beazley’s obituary.

A superb polymathic mind. A man of erudition and curiosity. A scholar who could not be tied to a discipline but through his social empathy able to guide us through how we have articulated our spirit. An honourable man, a devoted teacher and student, a proud and loving husband and father. All his friends had not had enough of him and many now rue missed opportunity.

(John Arnold, Journal of Australian Studies Vol 42, Issue 4, 2018)

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