Good Old, Sweet Old, Wholesome, Pure Little Brisbane: Nick Earls on The Delinquents

Nick Earls reflects on discovering classic Australian novel The Delinquents - Brisbane’s Last Exit to Brooklyn - in 1989, as the film starring Kylie Minogue was made at a local hotel, and he hung around the edges of the set.

In 1989, nearly thirty years after the publication of Criena Rohan’s first novel, The Delinquents, Brisbane was on the cusp of change. Tony Fitzgerald had laid bare police corruption; an election was looming and the National Party was, for the first time in a generation, doomed to lose office. Meanwhile, at the Park Royal Hotel, my girlfriend played in the piano bar and Kylie Minogue was stuck, like a shorter-haired Rapunzel, many floors above, grappling with the onslaught of fame and, by day, attempting to film the screen adaptation of The Delinquents.

Kylie, with her famous eighties perm loosened a little for the fifties setting, played the feisty Lola, who gets knocked down repeatedly but keeps dragging herself back up, and who often doesn’t know where her next quid is coming from. I later read that Kylie made $13 million that year. In her own way, though, she was being buffeted by her circumstances: staying in the hotel under an assumed name, having jeans brought in when she needed a pair because it was no longer feasible for her to shop, trying to manage a private life while being pulled in all directions publicly. There must have been times when, despite her good fortune, she wondered if and when her life might start to make sense again.

Kylie was twenty at the start of production - the same age as Lola at the end of The Delinquents - and she turned twenty-one during the shoot. I hung around the fringes of the birthday party that the cast and crew threw for her in the hotel, before she flew to her official twenty-first in Melbourne.

At some point during my time on the periphery of the production, desperate to connect with any kind of writing community and to soak up what I could about the film business, I asked one of the producers why they’d chosen to film in Brisbane. He told me, wearily, that I wasn’t the first person in town to wonder. And he told me that The Delinquents was a Brisbane novel.

Why did it take a multi-million-dollar film and the presence of Kylie Minogue to teach me that?

Brisbane was not then in the habit of celebrating its literature. It was a place writers left, and wrote disparagingly about from exile. If that’s not entirely true, it’s often how it felt. Thea Astley, David Malouf, Thomas Shapcott, Rodney Hall - the list goes on. David Malouf’s Johnno had arrived in the mid-seventies, and was immediately taught in the classroom next to mine by a daring young English teacher who went on to lead the Democrats in the Senate. But where was The Delinquents?

Criena Rohan had died in 1963, a year after the book’s publication. She was not, in my years growing up in Brisbane, known as one of the city’s writers in exile. She wasn’t even from there. But her eye for the place, and her feel for its breezes and smells and seaminess, are true. The Delinquents is a landmark piece of Brisbane fiction that should stand beside Johnno as an account of life in the city in the mid-twentieth century.

A landmark, but not an edifice. One of the book’s strengths is its connection with the details of the troubled lives within it, and its pursuit of the stories of characters whom the civic leaders of the time would have wished to keep invisible. Lola and Brownie are two outsiders who find each other in their teens and who remain determined to be together, despite their families, society and the law continuing to find ways to pull them apart. In some respects The Delinquents feels less like a shelfmate to Johnno and more like Brisbane’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, with its Spring Hill scenes of sailors and sex workers and run-ins with the cops. Hubert Selby Jr’s novel was published two years after The Delinquents, and like Rohan’s pulls no punches in depicting the rough lives of those on the margins of urban life.

The Delinquents refutes the nostalgia for a benign place where men wore hats to drive and everybody thanked the bus driver. It exposes the gap between the law and domestic conduct, and shows neighbours’ backs turning on violence within families. It reveals the horrors of pregnancy termination conducted outside the law yet alongside the proper lives in Queen Street, as the black Humber arrives to take the young woman to the pitiless room where the procedure is performed.

Lola and Brownie show us the everyday dishonesty, double standards and cruelty that lurked behind the brighter images of Brisbane in the fifties. It wasn’t all milk bars, big skirts and dances at Cloudland. Hugh Lunn’s 1989 memoir of the era, Over the Top with Jim, drew readers in their hundreds of thousands; The Delinquents shows a different Brisbane only streets away from the Lunns’ Annerley Junction bakery.

It also hints at the Queensland to come - the Queensland of the seventies and eighties, with the civil strife and the rottenness that Fitzgerald and others would drag into the light. ‘If you ask me, all Brisbane’s full of coppers and all of them bastards,‘ [Lola] said, expressing in one concise sentence the full theory of central government of the sunshine state.

The police are brutal enforcers in The Delinquents, and Lola and Brownie have grown up with targets on their backs. When they are caught in a pub, Brownie’s fined for underage drinking and bound not to contact Lola for twelve months, while she’s treated as a vagrant - a criminal offence - and put in Jacaranda Flats Girls’ Corrective School.

Later, stuck in the stifling care of Auntie Westbury, at tea with one of her successfully reformed young women, Lola bristles against the tedium of suburban convention:

Lola drank her tea and looked through the kitchen window. The success and Auntie went on to discuss the success’s kitchen garden, which, it appeared, was doing ‘real well’, but was much plagued by the snails, so the success was going to get a couple of those, what do they call them? Muscovy ducks to eat them up. And the success was knitting harelip a lovely fair-isle jumper, and Auntie became quite animated at the mention of fair-isle. On and on it went. All the old and beautiful arts of cooking and sewing and making a home swamped in a sea of banality that was too cloying to be quite real, even taking into account the two protagonists. It was unbelievable. It sounded like a programme to teach New Australian women English.

Twenty years on, the Saints would be roaming the same inner-suburban streets as Lola and Brownie had, crafting hard, fast music that found its place at the vanguard of punk, daubing ‘(I’m) Stranded’ on the dirty wall over the broken fireplace of an abandoned terrace house and performing community-hall shows until police arrived to shut them down. The Saints’ music would have come as a shock - and not a pleasant one - to Lola and Brownie, but propelling it is a disaffectedness and disenchantment that they would have recognised all too well.

How Brooklyn has changed since Hubert Selby Jr’s novel. How Brisbane has changed since The Delinquents - but there’s still a thread linking the troubled misfit characters of these books to the present. Though some details of their lives are different, these characters are still here. Even when the system tries to be more benign, there are people in our suburbs still falling foul of it, still having to look over their shoulders.

Reviewers in the UK and Australia praised The Delinquents upon its publication in 1962. Yet its author was already dying. Criena Rohan was on an oxygen machine when she finished her second novel, Down by the Dockside, and didn’t live to see the book published. She pushed on and wrote the now-lost manuscript ‘House with the Golden Door’, determined to keep developing as a writer though her time was limited. Her early death cut short a significant literary career.

The Delinquents dropped from sight for most of us, but it keeps resurfacing. A new edition was published in 1986, just as film development was underway, and the following year David Bowie observed that the novel would make a good movie. That film might have pushed Lola and Brownie back into public consciousness in a lasting way, but it wasn’t to be.

It was no failure domestically, grossing $3 million - a figure most current Australian productions can only dream of - but other films came along and we talked about them more, and for longer. Ben Mendelsohn, who would have made a brilliant Brownie, was apparently let go in the hope that an American lead would open up the American market. The role went to Charlie Schlatter, but the film was never released in the US. It’s Lola and Brownie’s story writ large - high hopes, big dreams, battlers against the tide.

Lola and Brownie and their world are too real and too compelling for us to relinquish. Every place and time needs stories of its outsiders, its rule breakers, people the establishment contrives to civilise or crush. It’s the business of novelists to give these people a voice and, in The Delinquents, Criena Rohan’s writing does that now as well as it ever did.

Portrait of Nick Earls

Nick Earls writes long, short and medium-sized fiction, including thirteen novels and numerous shorter works, as well as works for children. His most recent novel, Analogue Men, was published by Random House Australia in July 2014. His novella series, Wisdom Tree, will be published worldwide, one novella per month, from May to September 2016.