Frederick’s Coat, by Alan Duff, (Random House, 2013), 288 pp., $ 37.99
When I first received Frederick’s Coat to review I thought Alan Duff had written another book about a life of fighting and crime in the underworld, but although the novel both starts off and ends that way, it soon takes a completely different and very surprising turn. The unusual and indeterminate title raises questions rather than answers. Who is Frederick? Why is his coat important? These questions entail other questions about what it is like to be different, so different as not to be acceptable to society. It takes the whole book to give complex and sometimes ambivalent answers to these questions.
As with Duff’s previous Who Sings for Lu? this novel is set in Australia with the main action taking place in Sydney. We first encounter the protagonist, thirteen-year-old Johno Ryan, being questioned by his best friend, Shane McNeil, about an impending fight. Johno is on his way to thrash a bully three years older than himself, who has the reputation of being a good fighter, and Shane keeps asking his friend if he is scared. Johno is a strong character, resolved to fight for his principles no matter what the costs, and Shane is a weaker individual, with loyalty as a prime characteristic. They are very different, not only in their ability to fight. Shane has ‘no academic inclination’, whereas Johno has a tidy, logical mind and wants to be an engineer. The latter is represented as proud and confident, and can bring Shane into line with a sarcastic ‘You sure about yourself?’ But despite their differences they are ‘joined at the hip’.
Although Johno is not the narrator, the novel is initially seen predominantly from his perspective. He is brought up by his father and grandfather who taught him how to fight. They are quite often absent, but care enough to make sure he is fed and looked after by Shane’s beloved mother. The text is structured in terms of ‘life-changing’ events and the main ones in Johno’s young life are enumerated. Duff is careful to provide significant dates so that we can keep track of the action, which becomes increasingly complex. Starting with the opening fight, which he wins, Johno goes on to discover that he and Shane come from a long line of criminals. His father, Laurie, is an illegal bookie. He and grandfather, Reg, ‘just don’t do things straight’, and ‘Johno was expected to carry on the family tradition.’ But Laurie insists they never deal in drugs. We are told he is a ‘regular Aussie Robin Hood, it would seem’ – Duff undermines the omniscient narrator’s statement by adding the ironic phrase implying doubt. His mother, so Johno believes, died from cancer when he was a baby; Johno, aged fifteen, is surprised by a visit from a Maori woman who looks like a junkie and claims to be his mother.
After these revelations, Johno is convinced that his background predestines him to become part of the underworld. From the age of sixteen he and Shane are apprentice criminals and eventually become professional thieves. At nineteen, Johno falls in love with the beautiful Evelyn Tanner, whom he marries after she becomes pregnant.
A critical turning point is a five-year stint in prison. Johno is forced to ask the questions ‘What am I? Who am I?’ and resolves to abandon his life of crime. Meanwhile the hardship it has caused the unsuspecting Evelyn to discover that her husband is a criminal, and the effort of trying to survive without him, has hardened her and put a distance between them. She has had to move into a squalid apartment, living on the meagre handouts Laurie gives her. Her two young children have grown up without Johno and, when he gets out of prison, do not like him. Neither does Evelyn, despite his avowal to reform. She becomes depressed and tells him she worries about their son Danny, who is supersensitive, distant, timid, and scared of cockroaches and spiders. Danny also has a vivid imagination, and dreams a lot. At four, he is capable of sitting up drawing all night. Evelyn tries living with Johno for a while but soon abandons him, taking the eldest girl, Leah, with her and leaving Danny with Johno.
At this point Johno’s relationship with Shane fades into the background and his bonding with Danny becomes the central story. So the pattern of a father bringing up a son is repeated. Danny throws a tantrum at his mother’s departure that leaves Johno helpless. Laurie arrives in the midst of it, but he doesn’t know how to calm Danny down either, saying significantly that ‘he’s different’. He does, however, give Johno some money to tide him over. It is Danny who prevents Johno from ‘from becoming his old self’ and reverting to a life of crime. And it is not until Danny has a bad dream that he starts accepting Johno, who comforts him and invites him into his bed. ‘No words could describe the sweet ache, the almost frantic sense of responsibility he owed this child: that he couldn’t let the kid down, must ensure Danny reached his potential, always be there for him.’
Danny is represented on the very appealing cover of the book: he is good-looking with dark hair, molten brown eyes, an olive complexion and an inscrutable expression. As he grows older, school reports express concern about his social development, as he is very timid and has no friends. Danny remains too gentle, too different, and is bullied at school. Johno, who now owns a restaurant thanks to some money his father was able to lend him, arranges a private tutor for him. Wilson is a university lecturer in Art History who teaches Danny about techniques and perspective, nurturing his talent as an artist. Johno calls his flourishing restaurant ‘Danny’s Drawings’ and hangs the walls full of his son’s art. Much of Danny’s work is inspired by dreams, which Johno calls ‘panoramascopes’ or ‘vistalands’.
So where does Frederick come in? Going for walks with his father in the public parks of Sydney, the sensitive Danny feels sorry for any homeless drunk they encounter and begs his father to give them some money. Johno at first refuses, saying the drunks would only spend it on drink and want more. But he finally gives in to Danny’s pleading, and giving to the homeless becomes habitual.
About one quarter of the way through the book Danny meets Frederick in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Frederick is intelligent, a poet and a homeless drunk, rejected by his family because he suffers from bipolar depression. He wears a distinctive grey, herringbone coat – and stinks. The many literary references, taken mainly from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare and employed to substantiate Frederick as a poet, are unusual in Duff’s work, but they work. Despite Johno’s disapproval, Frederick and Danny become firm friends. Frederick, and above all the grey coat, inspires Danny’s art. After a scuba-diving experience with his father, Danny paints a surreal canvas full of people and fish, at the centre of which there is a large underwater cave with Frederick in his big, grey coat, standing in it, and the words: Behold the man within the coat. Like the pages of a book, you must read him first before passing judgement.
The story of Danny and Frederick turns to tragedy, but is carefully structured and beautifully orchestrated. Prefiguration plays a large role and there are no loose threads. The temporal references help to keep track of the action, especially when the thoughts and speech of different characters are juxtaposed. Most of the novel is seen through Johno’s eyes, but Duff makes smooth, effortless changes to the perspectives of other characters. He is known for his realistic use of different voices interacting in dialogues, or monologues, depending on whether the addressee can understand the speaker. Each voice is personalised, and though the omniscient narrator is the same throughout, each voice is different and allowed to speak for itself. The person most misunderstood is Frederick.
The world of those misunderstood is finely evoked. Not only Frederick and Danny are given their own voices, but Shane’s mother is clearly represented as well; when Shane finally manages to get out of prison and find her, she is beyond understanding. She does not recognise him and talks nonsense. He realises he should have been there ‘before she started the descent into this twilight world where humanity becomes shadows and meaning is lost’. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is another example of alternative worlds that impinge on and influence each other.
Duff is good at characterising voices: he gets into the head of his characters and follows their distinctive thoughts and speech, making them realistic and authentic. A number of scenes are seen from Shane’s perspective, especially those set in prison or in the criminal world, where Shane remains. The novel shows how the lawless and legal worlds may interact and can become interdependent.
Duff is also good at changing tone, ranging from the dialogues between good friends, to the rough or threatening exchanges between prisoners, and the tender words between father and son. The tale has a lyrical poignancy that arises from Duff’s realistic depiction of human suffering.
He uses more than his usual range of rhetoric in this novel. There is the metonymic use of the coat, which starts with the title and ends with Johno donning the coat and impersonating Frederick. Metaphors are memorably sustained. There is the metaphor of acting, which is used to evoke Johno’s behaviour with the police when he is covering up Shane’s murder. And there is a magnificent description of Johno doing a lone 60-metre dive, which works as a metaphor for understanding Frederick. He at first extolls it as a visual experience, but a ‘blanket of blackness’ descends and he is paralysed by great fear and cold that, symbolically, ‘felt like prison gates had slammed shut on him but with even greater finality’. The danger is later paralleled by a plummeting aeroplane, metaphorically embodying Danny.
Irony plays a central role in the novel; everything that Johno believes in when he is young is reversed. There is a lot of verbal irony, but the most striking is situational. The very fact that Danny hates violence is ironic. Johno offers to teach his son to fight, but even after he is beaten up, Danny refuses. Laurie will have absolutely nothing to do with drugs, yet his only grandson becomes the victim of drug dealers.
There are several recurrent themes in Duff’s work present here – violence, drinking, death, suicide, the committing of crimes, the underworld, identity, the aversion to smoking, turning over a new leaf, and even survival in public parks – yet he has managed to put them all in a different, new light. Duff has written a fine, sensitive and intriguing novel that can be read as a celebration of his own relationship with his father and is, in fact, a tribute to that; only the roles are reversed. Danny’s gentler character could be attributed to Gowan Duff, while Johno is more comparable to Alan Duff himself.
SIMONE OETTLI is a writer, critic and editor. She taught English literature at the Universities of Auckland, Lausanne and Geneva, and is presently editing a book on Katherine Mansfield.