10 JANUARY 1964, Page 25

Playing it Rough

IN the close season for novels a reviewer must be grateful for good entertainment and this is exactly what Alan Williams's second novel, Barbouze, provides: Here is more than a full quota of throat-slitting, bomb-throwing, pumping of machine pistols and violent death. Girls are, 'beautifully made,' men 'tough as whipcord' and. sometimes their eyes 'burn with a fierce blue light.' The setting is thinly disguised Algiers, when the Secret Army is entrenched behind its barricades. Coincidence brings a dilettante journalist from an English middlebrow Sunday to the city in the company of a barbouze, counter- agent of the French GoVernment 'licenced to kill.' The barbouze, an enormously fat man who hides a lethal trigger-linger beneath superficial jollity, plans to use him to bring the Secret Army to bogus peace talks with the Arabs. In the series of bloody disasters which follow mutual betrayal I L the journalist becomes a small lost figure, in-

volved with people whose ruthlessness he cannot match. Unfortunately the story rarely rises con- vincingly above its improbable adventure story situation and the disadvantage of a hero who is insufficiently rooted in his predicament. Mr.

Williams has real things to say about the colon and French colonialism, and his side effects are well done, but his plot continually drags him back to the artificial.

Joan Didion's first novel—a good one—is set , in the world of North Californian fruit ranches. On one level it is social commentary. The old generation are the true descendents of their pioneering ancestors. The land is their life. The grandchildren despise the philistine West, and will sell and go east. BetiTen stands a lost middle generation. But as with any successful social commentary, the issues expand and become universal. . . the real Eldorado is still further on,' Miss Didion quotes from Peck's 1837 New Guide to the West. The tragedy of her characters is that they no longer believe this--or anything else much.

My only complaint is with Miss Didion's style. Thoughts are printed in italics, often increasing

confusion, and parentheses of syntax are added to parentheses of time. Indeed the whole book is a parenthetical flashback between the murder of the first lines and the final acceptance of its consequences. I don't suggest that she writes care- lessly—on the contrary, she has a trtiz writer's feeling for the exact flavour of every %%Old and phrase—but she is often awkward.

It is a fault which more confidence may eliminate, and against it must be placed her considerable qualities. Slim understands well that to suggest that a character is totally explainable is to destroy him. She creates with excellent

economy the sort of bourbon-drinking, party- giving, easy-to-bed people she writes about. And she gives her fruit-barons a true aristocratic contempt for the regulations which govern the rest of the world. Above all she strikes the authoritative note of doom from the first sentence, so that the flashback device is accept- able because inessential.

Whether or not 'My Brother Jack is autobio- graphy presented as fiction, this is the way it reads. Such an account, beginning with earliest memories and ending with mature second marriage, does not necessarily make a successful novel, let alone 'the great Australian novel' which the publishers claim Mr. Johnston's to be. The title is perhaps part of the same attempt to present the book as something which it isn't. True, brother Jack emerges in the end as the Australian prototype, a good-hearted, beer-drinking, no- nonsense guy. And the final irony, when he is unable to go on active service and can only live vicariously through his brother David (a famous war correspondent who never joined up in the armed forces at all) is real and moving. But it is brother David who tells the story and tells it largely about himself.

Despite this, and despite the repetitive and sometimes portentous quality of the writing, the book has some sweep and breadth. It provides a -iod, depressing picture of inter-war suburban Melbourne, its dreary respectability, its perpetual sense of being '12,000 miles away.' Here one meets again the disproportionately shattering effect that the First World War had on Australia, when to a child an adult who wasn't missing one or more limbs seemed a surprising exception.