Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Noir stories come in different shapes and sizes, so to speak. No matter what sort of noir story, though, the reader knows that the outcome is going to be both unhappy and inevitable. Let’s look at an example of this today and turn the spotlight on Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket.
If I may, let me begin with a comment about the novel from the late and sorely-missed Bernadette, who blogged at both Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime:
‘The noir label is thrown around with far too much abandon for my liking but as I closed the back cover of this book I thought it might just be the most perfect example of the genre I’ve read.’
There you go, Bernadette. I took your suggestion to read this one.
The story begins in the boot/trunk of a car, where Darren Keefe is tied up. He’s sure he’s on his way to being killed, and to him, it seems inevitable. So, readers know right away that something terrible has happened, and that something even worse is about to happen.
As the novel gets underway, Darren begins to tell his story (first person, present tense) from the beginning. And that beginning is his backyard, where he plays cricket with his brother Wally, who is two years older. The Keefes grow up in the Melbourne suburb of Altona, where playing cricket is almost as natural as breathing. For the Keefe brothers (and their mother, Pamela), cricket’s more than a pastime; it’s a way of life. And it’s not long before both brothers show unusual talent for the game.
Pamela knows that. She also knows that, as a single mum who earns a living working at cheap pubs, she can’t provide much in the way of a future for her sons, So, she scrimps, saves, and gives up a great deal to provide them with cricket gear and other things they need, so they have their chance. For them, it’s the most likely way to have a better life.
As the years go by, we see more and more how Darren and Wally develop, both as people and as cricketers. Wally is disciplined, intent on the game, and determined to be the best. Darren has a great deal of natural talent, but he is, to put it mildly, less inhibited. He’s the sort of player who can be superb – even brilliant – in the game, but who is neither consistent nor disciplined. And as time goes on, that contrast between the brothers plays a critical role in what happens between them, and what happens to both of them.
So does what they experience when they learn the hard way about the darker side of cricket. As is the case with many lucrative professional sports, there’s plenty of corruption and worse behind the scenes, and the brothers learn about it all. That, too, plays a critical role in the outcome. As the story evolves, we slowly learn what happens to both brothers, and how it is that Darren has ended up where he is. I won’t say more about the ending, because it’s most effective if the reader knows as little as possible about it.
This is a noir story, and elements of that sub-genre are woven throughout the novel, including its look at cricket. This isn’t the happy, ‘clean’ game of cricket that you might have watched, played, or heard/read about. Serong shows readers the ugly side of the game, and we see how the Keefe brothers lose their ‘cricket innocence,’ if you will, as the years go by.
And cricket matters a great deal in the novel on a few levels. On one level, in many ways, it defines the Keefes’ self-identities, interactions, and more. And that has consequences for both. On another level, cricket is a main topic in the novel. There’s quite a lot of detail about cricket positions, strategies, and more. It’s a passion, even an obsession for those who love the game, and that’s clear in the novel.
Cricket is, of course, played in many places in the world. This novel is uniquely Australian and shows the love affair that many Australians have with the game. In culture, language, and more, Serong places the reader squarely in Australia, especially Victoria.
That said, though, this isn’t a ‘history of cricket’ sort of novel, or even a ‘behind-the-scenes’ description of the game. Rather, cricket is the backdrop and context against which the Keefe brothers’ stories are told. As the novel goes on, we see how their different personalities impact the way they play, and how they impact the outcome of the story. They are opposites in many ways. Wally is single-minded, hard-working, and responsible with a sharp focus on the game and an inability to connect emotionally in any way but through cricket. Darren has once-in-a-generation natural ability, but he has difficulty with impulse control and self- discipline. He makes no excuses for himself and blames no-one else for the consequences he faces as the novel goes on.
In keeping with its noir nature, this isn’t a light, easy novel. Serong explores the dark, ugly side of people and of cricket. The outcome is as tragic as it is inevitable, and there aren’t really any heroes. Readers will also want to know that there is violence, some of it very much ‘on stage.’ The language, too, is consistent with the dark sort of story this is.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket is the story of two boys, both natural athletes, who lose their innocence as they move from childhood cricket play to the world of professional athletes. It takes place in a distinctly Australian setting and features an uncompromising look at the world of cricket. But what’s your view? Have you read The Rules of Backyard Cricket? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – Finding Nouf – Zoë Ferraris
Monday, 7 May/Tuesday, 8 May – Forty Acres – Dwayne Alexander Smith
Monday, 14 May/Tuesday, 15 May – Silent Scream – Angela Marsons