Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Malcolm Knox’s latest book somewhat unwittingly tests an awkward literary question: Where is the line between fiction, biography and myth?
When the well-known Australian author Malcolm Knox recently published his fourth novel, The Life, it was greeted with the serious critical respect due to one of the nation’s rising literary stars.
The Life, a tough, bleak, oddly wistful internal narrative of a broken-down surf hero of the 1970s named Dennis Keith, or “DK” as he’d once been known, had ‘em raving.
“A gloriously honest, brutal and moving story of a man who was at the top of his game and then pissed it all away,” fellow Australian Christos Tsiolkas, author of the much-acclaimed The Slap, wrote on the back cover. “It confirms what ought to be more widely recognised, that he is one of the most considerable of our novelists,” wrote the well-known literary critic Peter Pierce in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section.
“Knox has never written better than in The Life,” wrote Geordie Williamson in The Australian newspaper. “Page after page is radiant with the energy he brings to bear on Dennis’ passion for surfing… It is as though the choice of character – the masculine, working-class strut of a wildly unconstrained id – liberated Knox from bourgeois order and temperance. The ripe demotic of DK’s surfie tribe and the playfulness and vulgarity that characterize their golden years are rendered with all the kinetic energy of the waves they live to ride.”
Indeed…Yet not long after the reviews began appearing, I found myself fielding phone calls from old surfing friends. Their responses veered from the puzzled to the outraged.
“DK? It’s fucken MP!”
By this time I’d read The Life, and my admiration for Malcolm’s skill was unable to dispel a distinct unease. Because my mates were right. The story wore a different flesh – names and dates had been changed, purely fictional story arcs had been affixed – but the hard bones of it all corresponded. This DK wasn’t a fictional character at all. This was Michael Peterson. Or was it?
Michael Peterson, aka MP, mother Joan, brother Tommy, sister Dot, father unknown, grew up half wild in the late 1960s on Queensland’s newly christened Gold Coast, developed a lethal machine-gun power surfing style, won everything there was to win between 1972 and 1975, fell from grace thanks to heavy drug use and what was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, and subsequently became Australian surfing’s most mythologized, least known figure.
When I was a kid, steeped in the magical and slightly dangerous surfing world of the mid-‘70s, the MP stories had swung and circled through the sport’s submarine spoken-word culture, from kid to kid, from older surfer to younger, from personal contacts and third-person accounts, from People Who Knew.
As kids we used to imagine MP’s slashing cutbacks as our own, nicknaming them “grrbacks” for the sheer ripping grunt it took to lean that hard into the rail and hold it without the board skipping uncontrollably. We heard of his legendary drug-taking capacity, we heard crazy tales of how he would drink morphine directly from the bottle; we heard things about him that don’t bear repeating, and some of us took them literally enough to try them out just in case they worked, rarely with pleasant results.
We didn’t know shit about his life; or only the bits and pieces we’d read in surf mags when MP would deign to be interviewed, in which he’d usually sneer at the interviewer with lines like: “I could say, but I won’t say”. We heard about him hiding in the bushes at Bells Beach after winning the annual Easter contest for the third time, too distrustful to publicly accept the win, or … who knew why? He could say, but he wouldn’t.
At his last great stand, the fabled 1977 Stubbies Pro at Burleigh Heads, MP stared the crowd down with his aviator sunglasses, terrified his opposition, won the final, then half collapsed against the wall of the Burleigh public amenities, picture of a burned-out superman.
Then he disappeared, and in his absence the MP mythology grew and grew, its dark magic a counterpoint to surfing’s refurbishing image. Graffiti-art versions of his legendary cutback appeared in Gold Coast industrial areas, while along the highway near Kirra Point, billboards featuring the modern stars arose.
Around the turn of the century, Joan Peterson, who’d become official curator of the MP myth, decided it was time for the Book to be written. The baton fell to then Tracks surf magazine editor Sean Doherty, who produced a biography by turns affectionate and revealing. His foreword pictured Michael as he’d become: overweight, dependent on his tough-minded mother, yet still ticking – and keen on a feed, when he could get hold of one without supervision. (At one point, hilariously, Doherty loses track of MP during a rare outing, searches for him in fear of what Joan will say, and finds him in a nearby pub wolfing down a dozen oysters.)
Reduced to such human scale, MP was no longer the dark magician of yore. Yet myths die hard, and every surfer I’ve ever known from that time has a particular version of the MP myth lodged like concrete in his head. Even Sean Doherty. “I dunno how much of it my book cleared up, to be honest,” he told me recently. “It might have just sparked another dozen myths.”