reviewed by Lisa Down
Remember the old saying, ‘Write what you know’?
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It’s an adage former AFL player, author and columnist Tony Wilson must have taken to heart. His latest offering, Making News, revolves around, well… a retired soccer player, an aspiring young columnist and an author, who make up the not-so-happy Dekker family.
Aussie Charlie Dekker was an international level footballer and has recently retired. He’s married to Monica, a self-help guru whose pro-marriage treacle sells like hotcakes, though she doesn’t always practice what she preaches. There are two Dekker children, toddler Alfie and 17-year-old Lucas. Lucas is a shy but deeply intelligent wannabe columnist. When he wins a writing competition with the chance to apprentice at one of Britain’s trashiest tabloids, his parents are reluctant to support him as they’ve been targets of the very same rag. But it’s the big break Lucas can’t turn down, and it will set off a chain of events that will drop the Dekkers into worldwide scandal and threaten to destroy them as a family.
There’s a whole lot to like about this book, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. Usually if given a choice between something that features sport or reading about gynaecological instruments, I’d choose the latter. Despite the constant sporting references and the book’s light-hearted tone, there’s a lot of worthy matter being explored. And there is certainly nothing wrong with a book that chooses not to beat you over the head with the serious stuff.
At the heart of it all are the Dekkers. As individual characters they aren’t necessarily fascinating but when brought together and examined as a family unit, they become interesting. That’s because they are under tremendous strain; picture perfect on the outside but struggling terribly to stay together. Monica, for instance, is peddling self-help nonsense she doesn’t even believe in. The results are hilarious and like something straight out of a Dr Phil episode: ‘a family is a river system, and in order to sustain the health of the system, one had to exalt and nurture each individual tributary’. It does make her something of a hypocrite, albeit a wealthy one.
Charlie is grappling with the yawning hole left by retirement and the emasculating knowledge that Monica is now the breadwinner. A principled man, he’s willing to consider some dubious media offers just to feel like he matters. Warped and changed by the realities of adulthood, Monica and Charlie have become victims of their own compromises and ambitions, and now struggle to understand themselves and each other.
In stark contrast to this is Lucas. He’s young, talented and as yet unpolluted by the pressures of adulthood and ambition. He wants to be more than the son of famous people and his drive will be part of the reason why the family descends into further disrepair and eventual scandal.
It all sounds fairly dramatic. But even in its most dire moments, Making News never makes you feel morose thanks to the persistent levity of the third-person narration. This makes it a fun read, but the narration doesn’t really foster a powerful emotional engagement with the characters. They’re likeable, but not always absorbing.
The colourful supporting characters help the story along, such as Charlie’s manager, Phil, who is more interested in his fantasy league team than his client. Senior tabloid hack Christine, mentor to Lucas, is an absolute firecracker. She attacks stories with gusto and provides some of the funniest moments in the book. When writing about a Tourette’s support group she likens their symptoms to ‘that fairground game where chipmunks pop up and you have to knock ’em down with a mallet. Except the Chipmunks swear’. She’s the embodiment of our love-hate relationship with tabloid media; tasteless and utterly crass, but we just can’t look away.
As Making News proceeds to the finale, it doesn’t really quicken the pace or explode with plot. The third person narration keeps it at the same, easy-going pace for its entirety, with an ending that ties up all the loose ends neatly and stops just shy of ridiculous. At times the narrator’s voice is a little too overpowering and threatens to stifle the characters. This is made less of an issue thanks to the snappy, funny and tightly written dialogue that is clearly Wilson’s strength.
Wilson has been compared to Ben Elton and it’s a fair comparison as he is just as engaging, witty and readable. He is also deeply rooted in his context, with references to the Iraq War, the 2006 World Cup in Germany and other sportspeople caught up recently in scandal. These mentions don’t detract at all from the plot but it will be interesting to see whether or not the book will one day feel dated.
Making News won’t transform you or the way you look at the world, but I don’t think it aspires to do that. It does deliver an intelligent read that appeals to anyone, particularly men, with its lashing of sport and (light) sprinkling of boobs.
Lisa Down has just started working in the Australian bookselling industry. She loves social media and has an unashamed obsession with literature.