He won the Melbourne Cup at 14, then vanished.  Who was Johnny Day?

He won the Melbourne Cup at 14, then vanished. Who was Johnny Day?

The Australian “cultural footprint” that Drewe creates for Johnny shimmers like a reflection in a trick mirror, or in Bert Flugelman’s great stainless-steel Cones in the sculpture garden of the Australian National Gallery. Stare at them from one angle and you see ludicrous human distortions, but shift slightly and, suddenly, you see yourself.

The cover of Robert Drewe’s Nimblefoot.

Drewe hooks his reader with a classic yarn synopsis. It begins, “This is a tale of Johnny Day, his country’s first – and youngest – international sporting champion…” and ends, “Then Johnny Day dropped out of sight. People wondered what had happened to him. Wild stories started up…”

And wild they are. In medias res is Drewe’s mode, and his reader is immediately thrust onto the Ballarat cricket ground track with Johnny: “The Moscow Maestro is wearing a nanny goat around his neck like a scarf. Tom Day [Johnny’s father] said keep an eye on him, he’s the danger. Forget the goat cravat, the Maestro’s notorious for his sudden pre-race deadleg, the quick knee-blow speciality that numbs a competitor’s thigh for days.”

In nine pages of virtuoso writing, Drewe creates Johnny’s milieu, hints at dangers that will haunt him (“And now he knows what an enemy looks like … A tall pale man with shiny black hair”), sketches his vulnerability (“He needs his mother to hug him”) and his elusiveness, his metaphorical and actual nimble feet.

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And as it begins, so the story runs – exhilarating in its pace and vividness. During one race (circuits of the MCG) Johnny can’t concentrate: “Anything distracts him. A bugle blast from some show-off at the stands, rainbows glistening in an oily puddle, a windblown paper bag. But mostly birds.”

It is Drewe’s potent skill to turn “distractions” into art. He is a magpie writer, with the bird’s uncanny ability to fuse seemingly random pieces of observation into a coherent narrative, patterned and integrated.

throughout Nimblefoot’s extraordinary tumult of event – maternal love and loss, betrayal, rape and murder in high places, cross-continental flight, immigration scandal, quarantine, plague, pursuit (I kept being reminded of the indelible savagery of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch), Drewe sustains his rhythm and pattern of significance, like a skilled charioteer, controlling exuberance, and alert to danger. If I found the swivel of voice – from narrative to Johnny’s first person – occasionally disconcerting, that’s a minor quibble.

Give this book to American friends. Or to anyone who might relish serious Australian ironic play with language, meaning, and timeless relevance.

Nimblefoot by Robert Drewe is published by Hamish Hamilton, $32.99.

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