Fiction – paperback; Random House Australia; 414 pages; 1999.
Christos Tsiolkas is one of those writers who divide opinion: you either love him or hate him. Regular readers of this blog will know I fall into the former camp.
The Jesus Man is his second novel. It’s not quite as over-the-top grungy as his debut, Loaded, but it is definitely confronting and just as sexually explicit. It’s also quite violent, perhaps gratuitously so, and there are scenes within its pages that are truly stomach-churning and, well, distasteful. It makes the hard-hitting nature of The Slap (pun not intended) tame by comparison.
But it’s a well-crafted, authentic story about a first generation immigrant family that makes for compulsive reading. I loved the raw, visceral nature of the writing and the door it opens onto a distinctly working class world where pride, politics and prejudice often collide.
The outfall of a shocking act
The novel is framed around a shocking act carried out by Tommy Stefano, a 20-something man, who has broken up with his long-term girlfriend and shut himself off from his family.
The story is told through the eyes of Tommy’s younger brother, Lou, who claims that he wants to “offer a history of my family”:
But remember, please, this is also my story, in my own words. I’ll try and be honest, tell you what I know. But it is an interpretation; and I have to go back to beginnings and in the beginning I wasn’t there. So it may be that some of what I say is bullshit, is speculation, lies and fabrications passed on.
What ensues is a multi-layered, complex tale divided into three major sections devoted to each brother — Dominic Stefano, Tommy Stefano, Luigi Stefano — and two smaller sections about the sibling’s parentage between an Italian father and a Greek mother. Lou takes his time to explain what his close-knit, loud and opinionated family was like before his brother carried out his unspeakable deed and then examines the outfall — social, mental, emotional — on those closest to Tommy afterwards.
Like all of Tsiolkas’ work, there are recurring themes: the fraught and complicated relationships between generations; cultural baggage that comes from being the child of a European immigrant in a white anglo-Australian society; and the confusion and shame that arises when a young man raised in a macho culture realises he might be gay.
It’s typically left-leaning (Lou’s mother is a socialist) and there’s a lot of commentary about Australian politics (it’s set in the era of economic rationalism) and it’s often negative impact on the working class. Melbourne, as ever, is faithfully reproduced, almost as if the city is a character in its own right.
Occasionally the prose feels uneven — often angry and over-the-top when Tsiolkas is writing the sexually explicit bits; more sedate and polished when writing about everything else — and it’s debatable as to whether the final section (titled “Epilogues”) adds anything to the story. But on the whole, The Jesus Man is a powerful and absorbing read about the power of family, love and the ties that bind.
This is my 14th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in on one of my trips to Australia — possibly in 2005 — and it has sat in my TBR ever since.