Just to be sure I wasn’t getting tangled up in my own personal surfing mythologies, I made a list of DK’s and MP’s similarities – just the larger ones, not the details.
- late 50s, obese, living with mother, can’t surf any more, recovering in a stunned sort of way from long periods of heavy drug use and mental illness, check.
- never knew his Dad, check.
- dirt-poor upbringing, tough-as-nails mum who once peeled prawns for a living, check.
- Coolangatta/Gold Coast background, Kirra Point surfing heroism, check.
- “cutback king”, check.
- savagely hungry for waves in the surf, check.
- won everything available in the 1970s, check.
- one close rival a clean cut blond kid of slight build who keeps scrapbooks of his press clippings in order to further his professional career, check.
- another close rival, slightly younger, who gets financial support to get to surfing events from his high school via a uniform-free day coin donation, check.
- punched out by big local surfer on trip to Hawaii, check.
- forced into catching waves he didn’t really want at Pipeline, check.
- took a famously chaotic trip to the USA in the early 1970s with the Australian surf team, where locals idolized him based on some home movie footage of him surfing Kirra, check.
- famed last ditch career victory after fallow period wandering up and down the coast, check.
- slightly wild brother and angelic former girlfriend, check.
- aviator sunnies, check.
There were differences, “purely fictional” as Malcolm says in The Life’s afterword: the surf journalist who comes looking for DK, the twist when she turns out to be his niece, the further twist behind the long-ago death of her own mother, DK’s ex-girlfriend Lisa.
But when you stripped it down, this was unmistakeable. Wasn’t it?
I called Sean Doherty for another reality check. Far from being “great” about it as Malcolm had thought, Sean seemed as conflicted as I was about The Life. “I had the same awkwardness reading it,” he confessed. “The thing hugs the curves of Michael’s story so closely …then it’s got that bit at the end, where the brother and the mum turn out to have killed the girlfriend! Like Michael’s old girlfriend (Patty Huntington), she’s practically part of the family – they broke up 30 years ago but she and Joan and Tommy are close.”
Sean hadn’t felt empowered to raise these questions with Malcolm because, he said, as perhaps most biographers would: “It’s not my story.” But he had been expecting a nuclear meltdown to emerge from north of the Queensland border at some point. “Joan is so protective of Michael’s story and every aspect of it… I looked in the crystal ball and saw Tommy (Peterson) getting Malcolm Knox in the corner of some pub somewhere with a schooner glass on point, just giving it to him.”
So why hadn’t anybody else noticed this odd collision of myth, biography, fiction, and living human being?
Perhaps subtle class aspects were resonating here – or if not class, its blurrier cousin, culture. Say what you like about the Gold Coast: there’s a lot of good surfers, but it isn’t flooded with members of the literary establishment…and vice versa.
I wondered if Geordie Williamson and Peter Pierce, among others, hadn’t picked up the resemblance simply because they didn’t know it existed.
Peter confirmed on the phone that he’d never heard of Michael Peterson. He mentioned David Malouf’s Harland’s Half Acre, which is loosely founded on the artist Ian Fairweather, as an example of fictional characters drawing on the real. But Peter seemed more intrigued by the under-representation of surfing and the beach in Australian fiction. “Millions of Australians go to the beach, get sun cancer, lose their virginities … yet there’s a significant scarcity of writing about the beach.”
He named Robert Drewe, Tim Winton, Malouf, and Malcolm as having tackled the subject; I ventured to add Judith Wright, with her poem, The Surfer. “Not many. But they’re big names, though, aren’t they?” he said.
As big in literary circles as MP’s was in surfing, even.
Perhaps these worlds were destined never to truly collide. As Malcolm said to me, pondering why there hasn’t been much surfing fiction: “Writing fiction’s hard. Like surfing’s hard. You read about it taking 10,000 hours of doing something before you reach that pro level. And I don’t know if there’s enough time in anyone’s life to get good at two things as different and as hard as that.”
For all the unease it generates, The Life is a wonderful read. Malcolm has taken the bones of a myth, half-concealed by a biography, and re-mythologised it in deeply human terms. He didn’t quite buy my theory that he was rewriting a boyhood myth, a Life he hadn’t lived himself.
He said very carefully and slowly, toward the end of our talk: “I would hate to think that – and I would hate to think of myself as having – exploited somebody’s life in any way. And I don’t think I have.”
Yet I wonder: what’s the test for such a thing? Is there one? Might it be as simple as asking: could The Life have been written without MP’s Life having been lived?
More to the point, perhaps, do the Petersons really care? MP today is in his early 60s and battling diabetes.
Sean Doherty theorized that Joan, now in her 80s, might be tired of the endless task of curating the MP myth, and just wanted to get on with life. Meanwhile, Joan has deposited her own copy of The Life in the garage. It was a bit hard to tell if she had got all the way through the manuscript. When asked for an opinion, however, her reply was pithy enough: “Crap.”
Postscript: There’s a funny follow up to this article. After it was first published, in the Australian Financial Review’s book review section, Malcolm was scheduled to talk about his book at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. I got an amused text from Sean Doherty to the effect that Joan Peterson was heading down to Byron to confront the author. For a moment I thought, shit, maybe I should warn him…but in the end no warnings were needed. Joan stood up in the audience, announced that she was “Mo”, DK’s mother, and got a round of applause. Later, according to Malcolm, she told him she’d picked the book back up again and had started reading bits to Michael. Thus all appears to have ended well, though I can’t help feeling he’s dodged a bullet so far in the case of Tommy … and for me, the unease around the whole thing remains.