Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 25, 2018

Burning Down, by Venero Armanno #BookReview

Venero Armanno is a great storyteller.  My heart sank when I saw the cover of his latest novel because I detest boxing but I need not have worried.  Burning Down is a thoroughly engaging story of redemption and reconciliation, and I liked it very much.

The novel is set in Brisbane in 1975, i.e. in the days before Brisvegas and gentrification, and also before the Fitzgerald Inquiry.  While the mild summary from Wikipedia can’t really convey the way that event reverberated around Australia…

The Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct (the Fitzgerald Inquiry) (1987–1989) into Queensland Police corruption was a judicial inquiry presided over by Tony Fitzgerald QC. The inquiry resulted in the deposition of a premier, two by-elections, the jailing of three former ministers and a police commissioner who was jailed and lost his knighthood. It also led indirectly to the end of the National Party of Australia’s 32-year run as the governing political party in Queensland.

… it does hint at the extent to which corruption was endemic in all sorts of enterprises.  Armanno’s novel reminded me of those B&W American gangster movies where all-powerful men ran their operations from derelict warehouses without interference from the police, and where victims going to the police for help or rescue were hopelessly naïve.  In the world of Burning Down, only the younger generation consider it, and are soon disabused of their naïveté.

The central character is Charlie Smoke, a.k.a. Carmelo Fumo, a bricklayer with a mediocre boxing career long behind him.  His former wife Tracy has died, and he is estranged from his 19-year-old daughter Sistina (Sissy) but he fills his days by taking pride in his work and running a training gym for young aspiring boxers in his rather shabby neighbourhood.  One of the elements of this novel that I really like is the way Armanno explores ideas about boys learning masculinity, and we see this when Charlie’s new bricklaying job introduces Ricky, a troubled boy not coping well with warring parents.  Charlie is captivated by Ricky’s mother Holly, with her violet eyes and blonde hair and trim body, but he is also intrigued by Ricky.  Despite the boy’s flab and the truculence, Charlie sees potential in Ricky, and with his easy way of making conversation, he soon engages Ricky’s interest and yes, he eventually ends up in the gym with the other kids.

But Charlie has less luck with Sissy.  In the wake of Tracy’s death, he wants to re-establish a relationship because he needs to know that she is all right now that she is on her own.  He swallows his pride and goes to see her where she works – at the restaurant of his old boxing rival Diego Domingo, also long retired but living a flashier life than Charlie’s.  Sissy, developing a relationship with Diego’s son Robertino (Bobby) sees herself as a putative member of the Domingo family, and doesn’t need her real father back in her life.  She sends him packing.

But trouble is brewing.  Diego is beginning to show signs of brain damage from all those long-ago boxing bouts, even though – as Charlie knows only too well – his opponents were paid by the local gangster to ‘throw’ their fights.  Diego’s hands tremble, he’s forgetting things, and the bills are mounting on his desk because his gambling is out of control.  And Terence Junior is not the ‘gentleman’ his father was, not when it comes to getting what he wants from Diego.  Which, it turns out, is not the vast sum of money that Diego owes him, but the title to Diego’s restaurant, ostensibly worth very little at all.  Terence wants it because it’s on prime development land and he knows all the right people to have insider information about its future: Armanno’s masterful recreation of this area enables readers to recognise it as Brisbane’s eventual Docklands.  It’s when Bobby goes to extreme lengths to try to help his father that Sissy reluctantly turns to the only one who can help, and that’s Charlie.   His solution knocks the other characters off-guard, and readers won’t see it coming either.  (Yes, I’m writing this not long before dawn because I stayed up all night to finish reading the book.  Unputdownable.)

Charlie is an unexpected hero.  He is an empathetic and nurturing kind of man, forging a life that’s in contrast not only with Diego and his ambitions to be a big fish in the small pond of Australian boxing, but also with Ricky’s father, an ambitious academic who has no time for his son except to nag him about studying.  Both these men have moved their families away from their friends into flashier suburbs, while Charlie is content to stay in the multicultural suburb where he feels comfortable and where neighbours look out for him.  Although he has no illusions about leaving any kind of enduring legacy behind him, Charlie wants redemption and reconciliation and he takes pride in the way he has transitioned out of a dodgy boxing career into honest work.  He likes working with his hands, repairing the shoddy and dangerous work that get-rich-quick jerry-builders have left behind them.  Charlie is no saint, but the version of masculinity that he models to Ricky is an active one, using the body and the mind, building and making things, and enjoying cooking for others.  Readers will admire the way he exhorts Ricky to get on better with his father, telling him ‘You can learn a whole lot more from your old man.  If you make the effort.’

Less wise, perhaps, is Charlie’s inattention to the aches and pains that come with getting older.  (This failure of middle-aged men to take care of their health is apparently such a big problem that there are media campaigns to encourage them to be more sensible.) The pain that Charlie gets in his shoulder is, alas, very familiar to me, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see it diagnosed as bursitis and frozen shoulder, (sometimes alluded to here on this blog as my ‘wounded wing’).  How Charlie manages to manhandle a cement mixer and loads of bricks with this most painful of ailments I don’t know, but I know my physiotherapist would have admired his stoicism but told him off anyway!

Part of what makes this novel work so well is the unobtrusive attention to period detail. This is just one example:

Well past one in the morning, all quiet and not a soul around, Bobby knew they could have given him a second beating.  Instead, Mike and Denny stood by his car where it was parked and then, with exaggerated courtesy, moved aside to let him in.  They were smoking.  They didn’t say a word.

Bobby couldn’t get the key into the door lock.  The men appeared mildly interested in what he was doing: Mike took the keys from him and unlocked the door for him.

‘Go ahead,’ he said.

Bobby slid shaking behind the wheel, expecting the crash of a blow, or of a gun shot through the driver’s window.  Instead, Mike made to pass him the keys, Denny standing to one side, then Mike snapped his hand shut just as Bobby reached out.  (p. 119)

Who uses keys these days to unlock a car door, eh?

Burning Down is a beaut book.  Don’t miss it!

Author: Venero Armanno
Title: Burning Down
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2017
ISBN: 9780702259708
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from Fishpond: Burning Down

 


Responses

  1. I moved to Brisbane in 1972, living in a rooming house in New Farm and working in the Valley. I mixed with a pretty rough crowd but everyone knew where the gambling joints were and if you sat down for a drink you’d soon be joined by an older woman and a couple of younger pros. Of course the corrupt premier and his corrupt police commissioner said none of this was happening. Brisbane was very definitely not BrisVegas back then with its tin sheds along the river on the edge of the city and its rotten weatherboard inner city housing.

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    • I think you will definitely enjoy this one, Bill. It’s so interesting to visit these times from a view that’s different to the prevailing nostalgia. It’s like watching that show about the young Inspector Morse, where we see that police in London operated very differently to the way they operate now.
      And it wasn’t just QLd either… in the 1990s, someone gave The Offspring a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘NSW Police, best money can buy)…

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  2. I agree with you about disliking boxing but I have often liked the stories around the people who do it. It can be such an underworld of fascination.

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    • Yes, it’s the idea of a so-called sport where the aim is to hurt the opponent that sickens me. But yes, Armanno makes his boxer into a lovely fellow.
      My father (for whom the term ‘gentle giant’ was invented) was a boxer. He learned it as a scholarship boy in a posh English grammar school, (where no doubt it came in handy when they teased him about his working class origins) and during the war he was Regimental Champion in the Essex Regiment. But I was never able to imagine him in boxing gloves…

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  3. Glasgow my home town always had a strong boxing culture. It was seen as a quick exit out of poverty for strong young men. I recall seeing them after their careers were ended. They were often physically wrecked from the bashings and alcohol.

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    • I believe that it’s popular with young Aboriginal men too, perhaps for the same reason.

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  4. […] Armanno’s most recent work is Burning Down, which I reviewed here. […]

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  5. Terrific review Lisa and will look for this one in my travels. New author for me and being a brisbanite I an keen to read.

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    • It’s always nice to read something set locally:) I’m reading Criag Sherborne’s Off the Record at the moment and loving the evocations of Melbourne:)

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  6. […] Burning Down (UQP) by Venero Armanno, see my review […]

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