The autobiographical nature of My Brother Jack is apparent from the outset. The narrator David, born before World War I in a lower class suburb of Melbourne tells about his parents who both served in the war overseas. When the parents returned, the house became a haven for men his mother brought home from the hospital and was litered for years with crutches, artificial legs, and men blind or missing limbs. His father was never very successful and became an angry violent man, who beat his sons on Sunday evenings just for good measure. His older brother Jack put a stop to his beatings by the strength of his own will; David's stopped when the doctor had to be called for his injuries.
David was apprenticed at age 14 to a lithography firm, a setting he describes with affection for the men he worked with. He began leaving home an hour earlier in the morning to roam the wharf area.
...I could go wandering around the waking wharves, and for the first time in my life I came to be aware of the existence of true beauty, of an opalescent world of infinite promise that had nothing whatever to do with the shabby suburbs that had engulfed me since my birth.
He began to write pieces about the beauty of the ships he secretly sends to the newspaper under the pseudonym Stunsail. Eventually he became a "golden boy" at the newspaper and by the time World War II arrives, he is valued as an asset to the war effort and chose to write about the war rather than become a soldier.
He drifts into marriage with a perfectly turned-out woman who installs them in a new, treeless suburb that contrasts sharply with the chaotic shabby household where he grew up. Before long David is bored with her, the shallow cocktail party conversation she so enjoys and the sterile house where he lives. He is actually nostalgic about the his boyhood and seems to forget why he worked to escape it.
His beloved brother Jack was the quintessential Australian man, patriotic, confident with women at an early age, a man of action, always ready to dive into the fray, sure of his choices. David defines himself in contrast to Jack and while he admires his brother, he just would not be that man. His views are nuanced, he is self-critical, and he is not always decisive. The contrast between the two is brought sharply into focus through their experiences of World War II. Not surprisingly, Jack enlists as soon as war is declared while David is secretly relieved to find he will be writing for the newspaper rather than fighting. During his training, Jack is hurt in a freak accident and is never able to serve overseas. David, on the other hand, travels all over the world and becomes a well-known beloved war correspondent. David seems pained to find himself the hero, and his Jack stuck at home.
I enjoyed this little commentary on Australian-speak that rang true from my reading:
It was then, and to a large degree still is, an inviolate Australian practice to make contractions of all personal names longer than one syllable and to expand those that are monosyllabic. So that, for example, while John almost invariable became "Johnno" and Jack "Jackie," names like Minnie, David, Gertrude, Emma, and Elizabeth were only used in their shortened forms of Min, Dave, Gert, Em, and Lizzie.
Now let me try to say why I loved this book so much: there is the coming of age story, the complicated relationship of brothers, the revelation of a different world (Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s), the masterful storytelling, the appreciation of beauty in the most unusual places. Perhaps the best part for me was George Johnston's ability to look at himself and his life critically and write about it with blazing honesty. Or perhaps I most loved the fondness he showed as he brought to life an era in Melbourne that had ended.