George Johnston

My Brother Jack

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My Brother Jack Summary

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One of the classics of Australian literature, George Johnston’s semi-autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack (1964), paints a portrait of Melbourne between the two World Wars. The novel is the first in a trilogy that centers on the lives of two brothers who are polar opposites: one, a simple, rugged, outdoorsman who typifies the ideal of the midcentury Australian male, and the other a physically unimposing intellectual who eventually becomes a journalist and writer. Heralded as a masterpiece on publication, My Brother Jack won the prestigious Australian literature Miles Franklin Award.

The novel is driven more by character than by plot. We are introduced to the Meredith family and the two brothers whose childhoods open the book. The first person narrator is the younger David who grows up in the shadow of his older brother Jack.

David’s first memory is of his father returning home to an admiring public after serving in WWI. Having survived the battle of Gallipoli, Mr. Meredith is forever damaged by his experiences. Although he returns to his pre-war job, he is mostly present in the lives of his family as a drunken, violent, malicious, and abusive man. David describes the regular beatings his father doles out to both his children and his wife. Mrs. Meredith also served in WWI as a nurse. Now, she works in a local hospital and opens their house up to wounded, maimed, and otherwise recuperating soldiers who aren’t sick enough to be in the hospital, but are not well enough to go elsewhere. David remembers a man who had all four of his limbs blown off and was now just a torso.

The more Mr. Meredith copes with his shellshock through violence, the more often Mrs. Meredith lives in fear for her life. To escape, David begins taking long walks on the Melbourne pier. Eventually, he meets a sailor who befriends him and tells him his life story. Realizing that he is interested in learning about other people, David begins to write – but the only way he can hope to be published without incurring his father’s wrath is to submit the stories under an assumed name. Even still, when his father finds the typewriter Mrs. Meredith has brought home, he explodes in a rage.

David is a shy and retiring teenager who seemingly doesn’t much care about his solitary life. At the same time, he idolizes his brother Jack, a “typical Australian bloke” – a feeling that makes David often feel self-loathing. Jack has many of the qualities David lacks: a good nature, outgoingness, bravery, and curiosity about the world. Jack is uneducated but well-liked and hard-working, tough but kind and decent, good at sports, and happy about his many sexual conquests. This character has come to define the post-colonial archetype of Australian men, held up as an ideal in that country’s psyche much as the cowboy is in the U.S. Despite the brothers’ vast differences, they are loving and supportive of each other.

As they grow up, Australia falls into the Great Depression. Finding this period difficult, Jack suffers through much of it. David, on the other hand, becomes an increasingly prominent journalist whose success results in both increased status and substantial income. His career really hits its stride during WWII, as he becomes a war correspondent of some renown. The dynamic between the two brothers flips, as it is now Jack who finds himself looking up to David, although David worries that his level of fame is undeserved.

Nevertheless, David revels in the things that come with being a celebrity. He marries Cressida Morley, a glamorous and exciting woman, buys a brand new house in an expensive suburb outside Melbourne, and hangs out with a circle of rich and fashionable friends. Jack also marries, but his married life is straightforward and uncomplicated. Because he isn’t always chasing outward appearances, Jack is free to be happy in his less financially successful existence with his loving wife and their many kids.

As David contemplates the two of them, he realizes that he feels trapped in his suburban life and the demands of his literary status. He wishes he could be as grounded as Jack. The novel ends with a hint that David’s relationship with Cressida is no longer full of the passion that connected them at first and that it will eventually end in tragedy.