The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Chemo’ by Luke Ryan and ‘Hitchy Feet’ by John Card, August 2014

Two books reviewed for The Weekend Australian in a single article, which is republished below in its entirety.

Running away only to find oneself

Book cover: 'Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life' by John Card, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014A travel memoir based on the author’s experience of hitchhiking around Australia in the late 2000s, Hitchy Feet introduces us to John Card, a Victorian high school science teacher who tires of the classroom and seeks adventure.

The plot is rather thin: Card has designs on becoming a radio broadcaster, and hitches a counterclockwise path up the east coast toward a university in Perth for an admission interview. This stated goal is something of a MacGuffin, though, as much of the book is instead devoted to narrating the situations Card finds himself in while hitching, as well as putting his past actions under the microscope while reflecting on the man he has become.

Card was 33 at the time of undertaking his journey, and frequently downcast about his lack of overarching life direction. While in the midst of the book’s most amusing chapter — an all-night drive through the Pilbara with ‘‘Joe’’, who sinks a carton of beer and climbs onto the roof while the vehicle moves at 120 clicks per hour — Card is handed a stack of porno mags by his gregarious companion, a friendly gesture that sends the author into a tailspin of melancholy. He craves intellectual stimulation, rather than something that’ll give him an erection. “I needed a broadsheet newspaper, a certainty for keeping me flaccid,” he writes.

Card’s experiences as a high school teacher here and in England are well-drawn, and I’d liked to have heard more about this aspect of his life. He admits his initial passion for the job was soon overwhelmed by its challenges — a common story among young teachers — which eventually became cynicism. He believes our public secondary school system plays a vital part in capitalism, as he and his colleagues “looked after children while their parents made money”. Card claims to have no answers to this troubling situation, but his observations from the coalface of a difficult profession are valuable nonetheless.

While struggling with the job at a London school, he almost clobbers a mouthy Serbian refugee who claims to have seduced his girlfriend. “Admitting my violent longings caused deep conflict within me,” he writes. These desires are rooted in Card’s experience of being bullied as a child. The trauma has carried into his adult life and there are times where the ­author has to fight himself to keep the violence at bay. Add booze to the equation, though, and the task becomes harder. Directionless men and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand, and Card is no exception.

These stories tend to be funny, but his segues can be weak: at one point, Card writes awkwardly: “By the time I’d stopped typing late in the afternoon, I’d obtained a raging beer thirst. I quenched it.”

In the heat of the moment, though, his narration is compelling, especially when his inner monologue kicks in. The following section occurs after meeting some unsavoury parents at a pub in Richmond, western Queensland:

I lay down on the torn mattress, thinking of Joe’s kids. I had the impression he would call them all little cunts, all the time, because of the ease with which it rolled off his tongue. I started to reflect on how this journey’s voyeuristic quality was patronising on my part. Was I putting myself in these situations in order to feel better about myself? Reaffirming myself as middle class? Was I just there for a laugh? Was I having a midlife crisis? Was I a snob? These were unanswered questions, but I felt very unlike the Joes of the world. Maybe even more middle class.

Ultimately, it’s this sort of honesty that elevates Hitchy Feet from the middling travel memoir established in the opening pages to the salient insight into the psyche of a smart young Australian man with which we finish.

Book cover: 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!' by Luke Ryan, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014In contrast, readers know exactly what they’re getting from Luke Ryan’s debut book. The 29 year-old author was unlucky enough to have been diagnosed with cancer twice, at the age of 11 and 22. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo centres on of the grimmest periods of the Melbourne-based writer’s life.

Yet punchlines abound to the point where there’s practically a gag on every page, a large proportion of which cut through due to tragicomic circumstances or the sheer drollness of his observations.

“Given my white, suburban, middle-class, Catholic upbringing, quite possibly these are the only things of interest to have ever happened to me,” Ryan wryly notes.

His painful childhood illness is viewed through the wiser lens of adulthood, complete with staircase wit: after returning to school and slipping to the social periphery, the author was told by “a group of horny reprobates” to return to hospital.

“This was, I felt, both cruel and frankly inappropriate advice coming from anyone besides a medical professional,” he writes.

The more socially adept older Ryan met the second round with a resolution not to adhere to the cancer narratives of journeys, battles and survivors. These conventional stories were of no interest to him; instead, he opted to craft a comic persona to deny the seriousness of his situation. It worked: he got through the experience with good humour intact, and his 2009 stand-up show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Luke’s Got Cancer, was a sell-out hit.

Though Ryan’s incisive wit is the chief narrative voice here, he’s not above lifting the curtain to show the anxiety and fear that swirled through his mind offstage. These glimpses of emotional honesty are some of the book’s finest moments and add gravitas to a fine memoir that never approaches self-pity. After all, as he writes in the introduction, this isn’t a book about denying cancer, but about seeing cancer as part of a life, rather than its sum total.

An intelligent writer of great talent, Ryan wilfully acknowledges that with the publication of this book he has milked this particular subject and its minutiae of sickness and tedium for all it’s worth. Having proved himself a deft hand at the task of painful self-examination, Ryan seems highly likely to excel at whichever topic he chooses to write about next.

Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based journalist. His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, is published by UQP.

Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life

By John Card

Finch Publishing, 224pp, $24.99

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!

By Luke Ryan

Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99

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