This is probably the only ‘poem’ I’ll ever write:
The homes of my childhood, Victorian country towns – except for Blackie Sth, a suburb of Melbourne, now leafy, then new red brick and tile. For my father, markers of his progress through the teaching service and into the bureaucracy. For me, constant changes of school, 5 years, 3 years, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, dux of class, class captain, move, repeat, till in 1968 I matriculated with 3 first class honours, a fail in English and a bare pass in Calculus, with a pregnant girlfriend, and an insufficient grounding in mathematics, already heading for a life in trucks, away from supervision and away from people.
This is a book about sons and fathers, and it has set me off. I had a childhood like the boys in this book, church on Sundays, school on weekdays, but otherwise, from the age of six or seven, free to jump on my bike, head off to a mate’s house, or out into the paddocks, to a game of tennis or to swim in the river or at the pool. Mum home cooking, Dad sober. An idyllic childhood. And it makes me angry. I know fathers who came home drunk, fathers who beat their children, fathers whose behaviour in relation to their daughters, and sometimes their sons, was unspeakable. And still I’m angry, about the friends I didn’t keep, about the father I didn’t have, about the second-rate teaching I got at Colac High so he could be District Inspector.
Golden Boys is set in a suburban neighbourhood in an unnamed city in an unspecified year. A middle class suburb of mixed weatherboard and red brick houses. It feels like (Melbourne suburbs) North Blackburn or Clayton or Reservoir in the 1980s with cheaply constructed post-war housing and young families, but it could be anywhere. Strangely, though it’s November it’s too cold for swimming, so maybe it’s Hobart. Everywhere I lived, before heated pools, swimming started at the end of the September school holidays.
The principal actors are Freya, Declan and Sydney Kiley, aged 12, 11, 10; Colt and Bastian Jenson, aged 12 and 9; and two boys from broken or damaged families Avery and Garrick aged 11. And that’s the other problem, two problems really, I have with this story. The boys all knock around together. My brothers are 2, 5 and 7 years younger than me and I would have had to be really desperate to play with even the nearest. At different times Freya and Colt are the same age, then Declan, Syd and Colt are, then Syd and Bastian (who’s a bit of a baby), or Avery and Bastian and so on. It doesn’t ring true.
Spoilers. Which takes us to the second problem. The central focus of this novel is that Rex Jenson buys Colt and Bastian flash toys, a roomful of flash toys, and a swimming pool, in order to entice other boys into his house where he can molest them. Or at least his behaviour can be construed that way, and we are given plenty of hints that he has moved to this neighbourhood because he had to leave his previous one. The secondary focus is on Joe Kiley who comes home drunk on payday and is getting increasingly violent towards his wife and children (there are 3 or 4 more younger ones I haven’t named). Hartnett insists Golden Boys is an adult novel, not YA, but it doesn’t read that way. The POV we get is the kids’, not their parents, and even if it’s not suitable for 12 year olds, the novel appears to me best aimed at, say, 16 year olds.
The Jensons have just moved in. Colt and Declan get on ok and (father) Rex makes clear that all the boys are welcome, not just to knock around on their bikes, but to come in, use the toys, get something to eat.
Declan from early on is uneasy about Jenson’s behaviour, worried that Syd is gravitating towards the toys and more particularly the pool, where Jenson can towel him down, tuck his clothes in. Avery, a parentless boy, almost a street kid, keeps his distance and surprisingly it is the rough boy, Garrick, who is first to complain. He has to tell someone and he tells Declan and Syd:
Without looking at them he says, ‘He wasn’t naked,’ and adds swiftly, ‘Neither was I. he didn’t make me touch his toggle -’
Then he tells them the full story, of him and Avery having a swim in the Jenson’s backyard pool in the evening, with Rex looking on “Making his stupid comments”. Then Avery slips away and Garrick is caught:
‘… he grabs me and, really quick, he tucks my shirt into my jeans. He sticks his finger down the back of my jeans, stuffing my shirt in… He cops a feel of my arse, Declan!’
So Colt finds himself friendless. Again.
There’s other stuff going on. We never completely lose sight of Freya, who persuades herself she’s responsible for her parents’ failing marriage. She also develops a crush on Rex Jenson, and turns to him for help when her father’s violence gets out of control. Rex intervenes, Joe fights back by accusing him: “You’ve been touching my kids”. Rex shrugs it off and that would seem to be that.
Golden Boys is an odd book, dealing with important issues, and Hartnett, as you no doubt know and I had to look up, is an experienced and much awarded author, but I think she got the tone of this one wrong. For adults it should have been much darker, and for YAs it should have been clearer about what they could do. At the end, even if he has to move again, Rex Jenson seems to have not suffered at all.
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys, Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 2014. Audio version, Bolinda Books, 2015, read by David Vatousios