A posting of last resort; FICTION
28 July 2012
Canberra Times
(c) 2012 The Canberra Times
FICTION A posting of last resort

TO THE HIGHLANDS. Fremantle Press. 204pp. $27.99. 
Reviewer Peter Pierce

Chastening sojourn: Papua New Guinea's Highlands are the setting for Doust's novel. 

After his striking first work of fiction, Boy on a Wire (2007), Jon Doust has taken his time. Five years later, he has delivered the second instalment of what is intended to be a trilogy with the encompassing title ''One Boy's Journey to Man''. 

This is the semi-autobiographical novel To the Highlands whose title pays homage to one of the best-known works of another Western Australian writer – To the Islands by Randolph Stow. Stow is a presence in Doust's book in another way. His novel Visitants (1979) is one of the few distinguished Australian works to deal with our vast, nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. (To that company belong the fiction of Trevor Shearston, some of James McAuley's finest poetry, Peter Ryan's war memoir, Fear Drive My Feet (1959), and, this year, Drusilla Modjeska's The Mountain.) 

An unnamed PNG, its independence only a few years away, is the setting of To the Highlands. Jack Muir drops out of his exclusive Perth private school. His Rotarian father taps a few mates on the shoulder to secure the scapegrace son a lowly job far from home, a cadetship in the Colonial Bank of Australia. Thus Jack becomes a modern version of the remittance man (a paid exile, in disgrace) who was a staple character in 19th-century Australian fiction. 

But this is 1968, and a wider world impinges, at least on one such as Jack, who is full of curiosity, who is a reader, and therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, ill-fitted for the regimented tedium and precision of work in a bank. In the background of Jack's Highlands misadventures (he is sent from the dusty capital to hot and moist Moroki as a posting of last resort) unscrolls the newsreel of an annus mirabilis of modern history: invasion, assassinations, an ongoing war. As Jack remarks, ''The world was falling apart. Bits of it were burning.''!

By contrast, for expatriates - even novices such as himself - ''the islands are all about drinking and f---ing''. The venue of choice for the former is the bluntly named Jungle Bar; for the latter, the home of the dissolute social worker, Jimmy Irish. Others, purse-lipped, are here to save money for houses and Holdens back home, and treat with contempt the native population around them.

Jack encounters some unhinged sexual adventurers as well as righteous kiaps (patrol officers) with keen senses of their mission in, and the history of, this place. He meets George Kanluna, the man touted as the first prime minister of the country soon-to- be, and a ''big man'', old Jim Baker, who has married a local woman, ended a tribal war and settled in the Highlands.

What seems most important to Jack, initially at least, is to lose his virginity ''before Robert F. Kennedy is president of the United States of America or before he is shot down like his brother''. This is soon managed, with native women who are accommodating but usually more understanding of Jack's circumstances than he himself might be! 

Jack's narrative is purportedly based on the journal he kept during his riotous, reckless, but ultimately chastening sojourn in the Highlands. It admits no wisdom of hindsight, preferring to relate what happened to him, sometimes through his volition, at other times when he surrenders to the dares and temptations of others. 

Doust does a fine job of finding and controlling the voice of an 18-year-old, callow but intelligent, one on whom so many experiences are thrust and who is as far from ''neat, tidy and clean people like Rotarians'' as it seems possible to be. To the Highlands is a short, dense, assured and incidentally poignant performance that has been worth the wait.

Peter Pierce is an honorary research fellow and professor at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

The West Australian 
28 August 2012
(c) 2012, West Australian Newspapers Limited
To the Highlands is book two of Jon Doust’s trilogy that tracks the inner life and adventures of Jack Muir. Set in the late 1960s, Muir takes up a post as a “bank Johnny” in the Highlands of PNG. His story is both gritty and confronting with a seemingly bulletproof cast of young male characters who constantly test the boundaries in a country where the “back home” rules do not apply. Whilst Jack is a flawed character, he engenders some likable yet slightly hopeless characteristics that make us question the values of the world which he inhabits.

Sydney Morning Herald
11 August 2012

The novel is drenched in sex and sweat, the precarious lives of those working for a colonial power, and the sadness and grim resolve of locals preparing for their country's independence. 

Katherine England
The Adelaide Advertiser Magazine
4 August 2012

Jon Doust named the second part of the fictionalised memoir of his journey to manhood, that started with Boy on a Wire, to echo Randolph Stow's To the Islands, but there the similarity and homage end. Still occasionally talking to Jesus and maintaining the drinking and chucking rituals started at Schoolies in WA, Jack Muir heads for the PNG look-alike Islands to work as a bank johnny, boredom with school having ensured that he hasn't made it to university. He soon finds banking even more boring, and is exiled to the highlands as punishment for bad behaviour within weeks.
A reluctant virgin, he is desperate to add rutting to the drinking and chucking, and is soon introduced to the very basic arts of bedding Island girls. Jack suffers from an inchoate anxiety about the state of the 1968 world, the racism of the colony and occasionally even his own behaviour, but it is hard not to see this book simply as fodder for male readers reliving post-pubescent dreams.

Louise Swinn


The Weekend Australian 

11 August 2012

West Australian writer and comedian Doust channels Kenneth Cook in To the Highlands, the follow-up to his Miles Franklin-long-listed Boy on a Wire. This time his protagonist Jack Muir has finished grammar school in Perth with a future dimmer than the one expected of him, and he is heading off to an unnamed island north of Australia, something like Papua New Guinea, to work for the Colonial Bank of Australia.
Reminiscent of Anson Cameron's Lies I Told about a Girl, To the Highlands is Doust firmly establishing himself as a rare contemporary voice with a downbeat, laconic tone from a time before now.

Lisa Hill
ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

My goodness, this is a confronting novel!  While the title was apparently deliberately chosen to echo Randolph Stow’s To the Islands, and the setting shares some geophysical similarities, Jon Doust’s new novel pursues existential issues of an entirely different kind.
Notwithstanding Jack’s immature, reckless and exploitative behaviour, there is something likeable about this anti-hero.  He has an engaging self-deprecatory sense of humour, and beneath the braggadocio, there is an incipient moral core, not l

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