After reading The Slap last year, and having read Dead Europe a few years ago, I figured I’d splurge and buy Tsiolkas’ other two earlier novels. The Jesus Man is probably the least known of the bunch, with Loaded being famous for being turned into the film, Head On, which caused quite a stir when it came out. If you’ll excuse the pun.
The men of the Stephanos men all have their problems. Artie, the father, is half-Greek, half-Italian, and struggles everyday with the problems this can cause. Dom, the oldest, had a small problem in his teens. And Lou, the youngest, feels the gap of being young. It is the middle child, however, that has perhaps the most problems. For this is Australia in the early 90s, and Tommy has lost his job. As his life spirals out of control, will everyone survive?
I know everyone is still raving about The Slap, but you can clearly see where Tsiolkas has come from, and his earlier novel seems to be almost a warm-up to his later stuff. Structurally, The Jesus Man is quite similar to The Slap, in that Tsiolkas manages to create a story from several different points of view. Here, each of the four Stephanos men have a story to tell, and together they build up a history of the latter half of the 20th century in suburban, working-class Melbourne. From the Whitlam incident, right up to the first election of John Howard, we see these people go about our lives as governments come and go, and ignore the working-classes. While The Slap focuses on the middle-classes and their very 21st century worries, this novel gets inside the heads of the working-classes of the time – we see their frustration at what is going and, and their inability to do anything about it.
This may be the novel’s main point – we are unable to control what goes on around us, but we should, indeed must, rise above all the things around us, and stay sane. And when Tommy realises that he cannot do this, he spirals out of control very quickly, and it is not pretty. Once fired, he spends his time in his unit, drinking, jacking off, and not showering. And when this depression comes to a head, he damages more people than he could ever imagine. It will have consequences that will shake the Stephanos family for years to come. Without getting into details (I wouldn’t want to spoil it), I do think Tsiolkas loses it a bit in the middle of the novel. Tommy’s descent into madness is fine up to a point, but it very quickly becomes disorientingly badly written, and the language is a little hard to wade through. We’re never sure what is quite going on (which I’m sure is the point), but when Tommy commits his fatal act, it all becomes very clear. His actions are disgusting and repulsive, and I don’t think they are ever really justified. He really has become depressed, and mad.
Tsiolkas really comes into his own in the final section, narrated by Lou, the youngest brother of the family. As with the gay teenager in The Slap, Lou is the character that Tsiolkas clearly ‘is’ in the novel, and as such, this section flies. It really is truly great, with echoes of future works by Tsiolkas. Love, lust and ethnicity are once again topics that Tsiolkas thrives on, and he does his best work when he’s looking at how each of these fit into contemporary Australian society. As such, he doesn’t pass up the opportunity to put Pauline Hanson (aptly nicknamed ‘The Racist’) into the forefront of the novel, making her views a vital part of his discussion of these things. She was, of course, a truly inflammatory political force, and as such, the views of the characters become exaggerated and passionate. Good stuff.
I wasn’t intending this to be a comparison to The Slap. My bad. But it is interesting to look at this novel in the greater scheme of Tsiolkas’ career. Clearly, there are themes that he will always return to. But does this make his books all the same? Hardly. Each one is different enough to make each one worth it. Go for The Jesus Man, it’s different to The Slap, and in a good way.