Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Glove Puppet
Neil Drinnan
London & Victoria: Penguin / Penguin Australia, 1998, reprint 2002.
£6.99, AUD $22.95, 244 pages, ISBN 0-14-026789-1.

Neil Drinnan
Victoria: Penguin Australia, 2000, reprint 2002.
AUD $22.95, 236 pages, ISBN 0-14-029099-0.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Johnny Smith's mother is a junkie prostitute "somewhere near Brighton—Brighton in England" (16). She had him when she was sixteen. When she is twenty-three and Johnny seven, she takes him to London, has a fix on the train, and drops dead "on a dim platform in a vast grey space" (2) in Victoria Station. Instead of being taken to some gloomy orphanage, however, the boy is rescued by a stranger and whisked off to Australia: "I was abducted. Adopted. The man at the station was the most handsome man I'd ever seen." (25) The man has just lost a child of the same age and the orphan becomes Vaslav Usher overnight, "not bad for council estate white trash" (31), and certainly a far cry from John Smith. I am summing up the boy's early days chronologically, but Drinnan cleverly exploits flashbacks, capturing the daily life of a prostitute's child in a few strong sentences that stick to the reader's memory, such as: "The sound of shagging was the muzak of my childhood." (19) I must also quote these lines (spelling unamericanized):

Sometimes Mum left the door ajar. I could peek in if I wanted but I didn't always like looking—it was often the hairy arse of some bloke pointing at me, pounding madly into her. I didn't like the hairy ones, nor the fat ones, but some were slim and smooth. (19)
[Sometimes] I peered in, crisps or cheesesticks in hand and took it all in, the endless parade of arses, the smell of semen and body odour—you'd think it would put you off sex, wouldn't you? (20)

As it turns out, Johnny / Vas is not put off sex at all, quite the contrary. He turns out to be very precocious indeed, and this will get his "dad" and himself into serious trouble. The not exactly "white-knight-in-shining-armor" who flies him down under is a dancer and socialite nicknamed Shamash. He is famous, wealthy, and comes from a "good family".

Probably the most remarkable thing with my being "reinvented" was dealing with my utter ignorance. I was illiterate, I'd never seen a shower except on telly, had no idea about how to use cutlery, spoke with an almost unintelligible accent. (39)

No one knows their secret, nor even Shamash's parents. This has its disadvantages, to put it mildly, which I will not disclose for fear of spoiling the reader's enjoyment. Vas grows up in the eighties (complete with pop culture references, Grace Jones and Madonna) between his dad's beautiful house in Paddington (Sydney) and a private school away from the city. There are many excellent pages about Paddington and Darlinghurst and Oxford Street, where bourgeois families rub elbows with debauched gays in search of cheap thrills. Oxford Street is Sydney's equivalent of New York's Christopher Street. "Oxford Street. An escape from the suburbs or a ghetto for local inhabitants?" (51): shades of The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), when Bernadette wonders if Oxford Street happily protects gays and drag queens from the homophobic outside world rather than unhappily locking them up in a pathetic ghetto. I was slightly deterred at times, I must confess, by Drinnan's insistence on casual sex, drugs, and prostitution (I thought the prostitution was more restricted to another, more rundown area of Sydney myself). He often seems to imply that to this day, that is mostly what Oxford Street is about. He makes little of Oxford Street's drag pubs, which are nonetheless one of its most persistent and popular attractions. Call me naïve, but every time I go to Sydney and my friends take me out clubbing, I get the impression that many people are drug-free, not on a sex rampage, and "just wanna have fun". Maybe I simply haven't been shown the more subterranean levels (figuratively and not figuratively speaking). There are some hilarious lines, like "girls who look like they've just walked off the set of an Aaron Spelling production" (52), and he does describe the nocturnal atmosphere very strikingly:

The street's glamour is its people, not its architecture—girls and boys strutting, preening and drinking. The boys roam from bar to bar, every muscle of their beefcake bodies accentuated by their child-size T-shirts. Wind-up boy dolls who know instinctively how to move when they hear the doof, doof of that music. Boys who go to great lengths to look gorgeous and masculine only to throw all "manhood" away when they mouth the words of campy songs like tribes of drunken high school girls. (53)

Johnny / Vas is a "Lolito", undoubtedly. "What is childish sensuality and sexuality? We imagine that somehow it just comes into being some time, conveniently, around the age of consent." (63) Who, if anyone, is really to blame when Johnny "seduces" a grownup, wonders Drinnan. That is one of the numerous controversial questions he asks in Glove Puppet. But I must stop here, and let the reader discover the rest. Drinnan is no Nabokov, but he has a style all his own, and many more years of success ahead, I trust. Again, my only minor reproach is that he sometimes unduly indulges in the sordid (as a genre, practically), as when he writes: "[He drives past] all the other Saturday night casualties, past the bottles, vomit, syringes, condoms and dog shit that jostle for space on the Darlinghurst streets." He should see the streets of any large French provincial city: the dog shit on the sidewalks of Sydney—as indeed remarkably everywhere in Australia—is very sparse. This past sentence was need I add my attempt at metaphor-swinging, but French and Australian crime-rate and homeless statistics also make for interesting comparisons.

In Quill, Drinnan explores more elaborate literary paths. While not forgoing his trademark descriptive talents and (often black) humor, he experiments with style, or I should say styles. The crisscross narratives—although no more straightforward than that of Glove Puppet—are very exciting, of the sort that makes you speak to yourself as you read, and exclaim, "oh no!", or "oh no, he didn't!" The Sydneysiders Elliot and Blaise used to be a couple, but Blaise left Elliot, a promiscuous novelist and prodigiously interesting character, to set up house with Woodrow, a boring non-entity. Then Elliot, surfing on his literary success, moved to the US.

But once there, he writes a tremendous roman à clef which may be read as a love letter and sets the house on fire. No individual who reads about herself/himself in Je Louse can remain unchanged, least of all Blaise. Some names are barely disguised. Woodrow/Woodie becomes Wolfgang/Wolfie, and hilariously thinks when he reads the book: "Pascal could be anyone, but Wolfgang—I'm not paranoid." (70) Whereas, of course, Blaise immediately identifies the joke. Blaise is cultured and refined, Woodrow is a gay yob, as they might oxymoronically say in Liverpool, UK. The French writer Blaise Pascal is even directly quoted at some point in Je Louse.

Although this device has been used before, with varying success according to novelists, Drinnan pulls it off elegantly. Nabokov's Pale Fire comes to mind once or twice, along with Truman Capote (In Cold Blood is actually mentioned) and even Tennessee Williams. The two narratives, packed with literary and pop culture references, nicely encapsulate each other and interact to often comic effect. They are accompanied by chunks of yet other narratives. The character of the mother is a lovely study. My favorite passage in that respect is when in an autobiographical text Elliot reminisces about his childhood in rural Australia:

"Are you wise, Mum, is your wisdom born of pain? What do you think about Women's Lib?"
She looked up from the sink, her eyes surveying the paddocks, the crops—and Kelly, our mangy dog tethered on the back fence. She paused from her peeling. A perfect spiral of potato skin hung from her motionless hand.
"Well, Wilma Edmonds reckons she's still selling just as many bras and with the price of underwear these days, you'd be a fool to go burning them willy-nilly. That Germaine Thingummy's just a stirrer if you ask me," she began to wave the peeler at me enthusiastically. "And when a married man like the deputy prime minister can gallivant publicly with his Asian secretary then things have gone too far… set the table for us will you love?"
I decided there and then that I wanted to be a stirrer just like Germaine Thingummy. (151)

For those of our readers not so versed in feminism, Germaine Thingummy (Germaine Whatshername) is of course Germaine Greer. Further revelations and sadness follow, with more Oxford Street antics and tragic-comic statements about Australian gay and straight life. I would have preferred a happier ending, but presumably that has more to do with my love of things schmaltzy than with literary criticism. It is a pity that Drinnan's two books—plus Pussy's Bow (1999)—are not yet widely available in the UK and the US, but you can always order them from if you don't find them at your local bookstore.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.