Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2020

Return Ticket, by John Doust

Return Ticket is the third and final book in Jon Doust’s searing trilogy One Boy’s Journey to Man.  Boy on a Wire (2009) is Book #1 of the series and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin  (see my review) and Book #2 is To The Highlands (2012, see my review).  The novels are semi-autobiographical, so they have an authentic rawness about them, tracing in Book #1 an unhappy boyhood despite a privileged background, and in Book #2 a disastrous sojourn in Papua Guinea.  In this third novel the protagonist Jack Muir goes farther afield, seeking a sense of contentment which seems to elude him wherever he goes.

The story shifts across time frames and countries as Jack takes off on a hippie trail, beginning in South Africa under apartheid in 1972 and then to Israel in 1973, finally coming home in 2018 to Kincannup (the Noongar name for Albany WA).  South Africa, not a place I would have associated with the hippie trail in the 1970s, turns out to be a choice more disconcerting than he had expected.  The drugs are good, and since his wealthy family are his financial backup, he has no real money worries, but the real life impact of apartheid appals him.

The Jan Smuts International Airport central hall was full of people all colours and shapes.  Except, of course, the departure queues — there were no black skins there.  All the non-white skins were standing around with brooms and buckets and cleaning, or readying themselves to clean up after the white skins, who made a mess in toilets, dropped lolly wrappers, newspapers, sodden handkerchiefs and even, Muir noticed in one corner, a smelly bundle that looked like a nappy. The whites were flying out and flying in, but the others were staying put, there to tidy up and even if they wanted to fly, there were no queues for them.  And air travel was for the wealthy.

Then he remembered he wasn’t.  Or hadn’t been. The difference between him and the handsome young man standing outside the male toilets with a mop, was that all Jack Muir had to do when he ran out of money was to call his father and ask him to send more. (p.51)

There is a devastating sequence when Jack is chatting with an acquaintance about his schooldays and the multicultural nature of Australian society.  He goes on to mention that there was one kid who was Aboriginal but if there were others, they didn’t say.  His South African companion is gobsmacked:

Didn’t say?  What kind of a country is that?  You have to say if you are Aboriginal?  Do you have to say if you are Greek?

Yeah, because you could be Italian, or Yugoslav, maybe even Lebanese.

No, no, no, you people have it all wrong.  Next you’ll be telling me you only knew the Jews were Jews because they said they were Jews,

Of course.

You mean, you don’t have race police coming to your house and taking hair samples and telling you who you are or what they want you to be? (p.36)

What makes this book unputdownable is the way despite the risks, Jack refuses to comply with apartheid laws.  In his first few days as a colourblind innocent, he found the rules confusing and is confronted by policeman who tells him to move away from the Zulu he is talking to.  If I move away, I won’t be able to hear what he says’ he replies…

In South Africa, said the fat cop, the only time white people talk to black people in the street is to tell them to do something and, if you refuse to move, I will have to take action against your person.

Against my person?  Which person is that?

The Zulu laughed so hard he bent over and held his face, but he also knew the danger and had begun walking away from the two men, one fat with a pistol on his hip and one wiry, with a small pocketknife hidden in a pocket. (p.14)

The reader holds her breath when Jack visits a friend in Soweto without a pass and refuses to hide as they drive along in the car.  He ignores the segregated queues in the post office and joins a parcel queue of non-whites despite remonstrations from the staff and a heavy-handed official.  But the strain of these encounters and his sense of disconnect about how a white skin is an automatic privilege he doesn’t want to have, takes him to Israel.

Israel is also not a place that I associate with the hippie trail, but for Jack, the attraction is the socialist lifestyle of the kibbutz.  Although (as he remarks ruefully later in the book) the nature of kibbutzim has changed, back in the 1970s they were utopian collective communities based on agriculture, where Israelis and international volunteers without pay worked to establish the food supply for Israel.  Jack is not a Zionist, but despite the dangers of the hostilities that bedevil the Middle East, the lifestyle suits him and he works in an obsessive way, seeking to assuage his guilt about his capitalist background.  He also falls in love, but this relationship like so many others in his life, is doomed to fail.

What I found most interesting about Jack’s journey to becoming a man was his inability to settle in any economy or society that offended him.  I’ve read a good many books set in oppressive regimes, from the USSR to China, but I don’t think I’ve read one before where the protagonist has such a profound distaste for a western capitalist state that he could not abide living in it.  He loathes the unfairness of the system, and is burdened by guilt because he is a beneficiary of it.  At the same time, he is also seeking love and contentment, and he takes the loss of the child he never knew very much to heart.  Friends he meets lighten his journey, and these vignettes show that his capacity to value people for who they are and not what they represent, is the key to him becoming a better man, a good father and a loyal friend.

An unforgettable book.

Author: Jon Doust
Title: Return Ticket
Cover design: Kolderal, ‘Man watching sunset over desert landscape’ Getty Images. 
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925816396, pbk., 264 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

 


Responses

  1. Interesting! My brother spent some time in a kibbutz in the early 1980s and I don’t think he had any issues. I don’t reckon it’s something he would do nowadays, though.

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    • I think it’s quite different now, the kibbutzim have been privatised…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so tempted…

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    • Have you read the first two?

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      • No. So I’d need to read all three, which is where your review is tempting me to go.

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        • I’m sure you could read each one independently, but I’ve enjoyed ‘getting to know him’ in sequence:)

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  3. I think Jack’s experience of working in a kibbutz was relatively common for travellers back then. As you say, they were held up as an example of cooperative socialism (Tracker Tilmouth went to look at them later for the same reason, though also as an example of desert agriculture). Me, I was more interested in going to Palestine, but in the end only went up the road.

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    • I used to hear about them from our Jewish neighbours, but I never had the slightest desire to live in one. I can’t stand the idea of communal living, even going to school camp with the kids for 4 days was psychological torment for me.
      (I was really lucky that I had colleagues who understood this. They used to schedule a couple of hours’ break for me every day so that I could just be by myself to recharge my batteries).

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  4. I haven’t read any of these books, but this sounds interesting. I even read it fully because I don’t expect to read it soon (if at all) not because I don’t want to but because I have so many others already in the piles or schedule.

    I love his answer to the policeman: “If I move away, I won’t be able to hear what he says”. Good one.

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    • Yes, but brave too. Those SA police had a shoot-first-and-answer-Qs-later track record worse than most people knew, though much of it wasn’t revealed until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s significant that he was armed: at that time Australian police and their British counterparts were not armed.

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  5. Happy New Year, Lisa. :-)

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    • Happy new year to you too, Celestine:)

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  6. […] My recent reading of Return Ticket by Jon Doust triggered my impulse to pick up The Heart of Redness, a celebrated novel by South African novelist Zakes Mda.  In Doust’s novel, South Africa in the apartheid years is vividly depicted, and the narrator exemplifies the psychological disconnect experienced when living in a society that is fundamentally immoral.  Life as a privileged white man becomes unendurable, and he leaves, because he can.  But what if it’s not possible to leave, and if one feels a moral obligation to make a difference, even if it’s risky? People struggle with this dilemma all over the world, in regimes from the Middle East to Latin America to newly nationalist places in Europe, and yes, in Australia too, if one feels anguished about Indigenous issues or the treatment of refugees or the inaction on climate change. […]

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