While it is not yet possible to provide a general assessment of the impact made in the United States by contemporary works of Australian art, there is no doubt that an impact of some magnitude has been felt among critics and tastemakers. Contemporary Australian writers, musicians, and filmmakers currently receive, for the most part deservedly, the quality of attention previously reserved for their British counterparts. Indeed, it may be that the relative decline of Great Britain as a source of artistic innovation has facilitated the emergence of one of its juridical dependencies, an emergence marked by a distinctive accent, resonant voice, and commendable ambition. Cultural historians will probably date this development from the formation of the Oz group in London in the late 1960’s. From the standpoint of literary history, however, the coming into fashion of Australian fiction dates, perhaps accidentally, from the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 to the novelist Patrick White, until then the only Australian novelist with an international reputation of any magnitude.
Among the Australian novelists who have come to the fore since 1973, pride of place goes to Thomas Keneally. Not only has he been his generation’s most prolific novelist, but he has also been the most varied and inventive in his choice of material and been less confined than some of his contemporaries to his native land. Basically known as a historical novelist, he has written well-received novels on, among other areas, the American Civil War, Joan of Arc, and both world wars. The particular fascination of A Family Madness (his fifteenth novel) is that it confronts his native Australia with historical phenomena not of its making, resulting in a work that is both a continuation of the author’s meditation on history and its human costs as well as a critique of the historical phenomena typical of the twentieth century.
Australia as a fresh, new, naïve, shallow society is very much to the fore in A Family Madness. Not all those attributes are embodied in the protagonist, Terry Delaney. In his ordinariness, however, or, rather, in the authenticity of his unadulterated Australian persona, he provides access to them. The principal means by which the author characterizes Terry’s definitively antipodean personality is that he plays Rugby League.
Unlike Rugby Union, the game played in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in former British colonies, Rugby League is played professionally. In fact, part of its distinctive character is that it was originally conceived and organized in the industrial areas of Northern England with professionalism in mind. As a result, it is virtually impossible to think about Rugby League without thinking about social class—in particular, about the creation and survival of indigenous working-class leisure activity. Although Terry Delaney only plays in the equivalent of the minor leagues, the fact that Rugby League is the game he plays (rather, the game to which he is devoted) gives him an air of refractory independence, a sense of physical staunchness, and a socially significant undercurrent of solidarity with his neighborhood and his class. The author is doing something more subtle than exploiting the fact that his fellow countrymen are sports lovers, for the sport which Terry loves carries with it a large amount of social and cultural freight.
The possibility of becoming indifferent to a sport which he not only loves but which is also a medium of expression for him is allied to other challenges that beset Terry’s Australian identity in the course of the novel. Though not a member of the family whose madness the book recounts, he is vulnerable to it, implicated in it, and ultimately changed by his encounter with it. As a result of his involvement with the Kappels, his marriage enters a rapid decline, his...
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