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When and why did a man lose the faculty of change? Was it some point in the dying of the mind and body. A hardening of the nervous system. He practiced keeping his mind agile. Daily he made himself think thought he had not thought before. He forced himself to consider the worst. He practiced considering the opposite. He tried always to imagine at least two other possible ways of doing something. He fed his mind with maxims and precepts – the how-to-do-it manual of the mind.
It is funny how things come full circle. I spent a lot of time in video stores when I was a kid, gazing at the cover art and reading the blurbs of 18s movies that I was forbidden from watching. My knowledge of the Nightmare on Elm Street series was based entirely on the summaries on the back of the video cassette boxes, until I turned twenty-four. One video I remember gazing at was The Coca-Cola Kid. An Australian film starring Eric Roberts, it grabbed the eye courtesy of its title and use of the Coke logo. I was a kid, any hint of sugar sent me into a frenzy. I never saw the film and in fact had long forgotten about it.
Now I discover that this novel, which actually is set along the New South Wales southerly coast, where I am currently staying, was the basis for The Coca-Cola Kid and its author, Frank Moorhouse, wrote the script. The connection to my current home and the memories it recalls to me of my childhood, strike me as a curiously remote form of synchronicity. It is also appropriate, given that this is a book about memory and the changes in one man’s life.
The story itself concerns itself with George McDowell, a local businessman who likes to hold himself to strong principles, in business and in life. He even changes his name in middle age, adding the prefix of ‘T’, to make himself seem more regal. After a trip to America with his father he becomes fascinated with Rotary, its focus on morality married with commerce inspiring him to pursue the founding of a chapter on the South Coast.
Fancying himself a man of science, an individualist and a forward-thinker, McDowell believes in living according to a set number of moral precepts. Having focused so much on his career, bound up with his notions of being a man of good standing within the community, he has sacrificed friendship and the love of his family. His relationship with his wife is coolly formal and his daughter has embraced a bohemian lifestyle, indulging in drugs and sex. McDowell cannot comprehend how his daughter Terri has become so estranged from him, blaming the influence of ‘city life’, which he holds accountable for other problems such as overpopulation and trade unionism.
Then a young man from the Coke Company named Becker arrives in town to investigate McDowell’s operation. He also encounters Terri and is quickly enwrapped in their strained familial relationship. Becker represents a form of future that does not fit within McDowell’s orderly vision of a world ruled by rational men of business like himself. His daughter’s rebellion is similarly a reaction to his pedantic moral philosophy. Having spent his life attempting to realize the future, McDowell finds himself an old man, left behind by modernity.
Moorhouse tells his story in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out of McDowell’s life. We are privy to his thoughts and experiences throughout, with his inability to realize how little others think of him turning this into a curiously private tragedy. I also got a quiet thrill out of the mentions of Bulli and Wollongong. We visit several periods in McDowell’s career, from the inspirational 1920’s right up until after his death in the 1970’s, with Terri now accompanying a film crew looking to interview Australian men who lived during these periods.
This serves as a commentary by Moorhouse on the make-up of twentieth century Australians, with a particular focus on the influence of American culture and capitalism. It turns out this is one of a number of books by the writer, referred to as ‘discontinuous narratives’, with the various characters reappearing in each of the stories, collectively sharing an overarching thematic narrative.
It is a curious experiment and after I have concluded my little reading experiment, I can see myself tracking down the rest of this series.