BACK IN THE DIM DARK DAYS of, oh, ten years ago, attempts were made to censor John Marsden's then just-published The Journey. It's crime? A Tolkienish tale extolling the transition from boy- to manhood, it touched briefly on the no-no topic of masturbation. Some librarians were shocked by its "pornographic nature".
More than anything, this was a minor skirmish in the continuing cultural battle over children's and young adult literature, between the boundary-riders of a protective perimeter and the warts-and-all social realists. The former much prefer, say, Marsden's cheery anarchy of Staying Alive in Year 5 to the bleak nihilism of his Dear Miffy; the latter believe that only the unvarnished truth is apposite, that if you are to attract the reluctant reader you must write of the issues that concern them in the language they understand.
So how will critics, librarians and educational authorities respond to his latest - and 19th - book. Secret Men's Business (Pan Macmillan, rrp $16.95, 174pp), published on April 1, revisits The Journey's coming-of-age teritory in a heavy-duty pull-no-punches non-fiction way. Ultimately (thankfully?), of course, any adult alarm will matter not a whit: his commited readership should maintain the page, consuming Business with avidity. In which case we'll all owe him a substantial vote of thanks.
Because whereas Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys talked to parents, the million-plus-bookselling Marsden aims squarely at pre- and pubescent boys. "Becoming a man," he opens, "is the biggest challenge you'll ever have." His promise is simple: to tell the truth, whether it's popular or not. Welcome to the Marsden minefield - honest intent is little protection against the snipers of vested interest.
This book ain't literature but nor is life - Secret Men's Business is the kind of dispassionate, bare facts rites-of-passage exposition we'd all like to be able to communicate to our sons, if we weren't so organically connected and flawed by emotional history and inhibition. Marsden, a singular and single man (he has, he has said, "trouble with relationships"), writes with avuncular insight and clinical simplicity. He provokes but never patronises nor preaches.
The effect is deceptively seditious, a me-and-you-around-the-campfire undercutting of the parental power base, with initiation ceremony intensity. It may make some parents (and some boys) uneasy, even irate - but before they open fire, they should ask themselves why we have so many confused, aimless and troubled young males in our midst.
And so Marsden challenges with the 12 Milestones of Manhood, elucidates on truth and lies, dissects the yay and nay of the big issues like drugs, puberty, sex, girls and women, and problem-solving. Along the way he raises other matters of concern, from loneliness to unpopularity, from phobias to fears.
"Adults have set up a tough world for teenagers," he writes, "and are often the first to complain that the teenagers aren't grateful. There are in fact not many ways in which today's teenagers have it better than their parents or grandparents. Certainly they own more stuff than any other generation of young people in the history of the world. But that's not necessarily a good thing ... it's all a question of balance."
Morality without moralising is at the heart of it - you can do anything you like, he says, and probably get away with it. But the biggest favour you can do yourself is this: learn to respect yourself and others and your life will be infinitely more rewarding and meaningful. Simple really. The big things often are.
Marsden speaks from the heart because he cares, and because his truths have been hard-won. His own adolescence was essentially traumatic and isolating, spent in what he found was the alienating environment of boarding school. It left him, he has said, emotionally mute at 19. Overcoming that muteness has made him, at 48, a man of generous wisdom.
Secret Men's Business is not the last word on entering manhood - at times the tenor is gratingly simplistic, the analysis lacking a layer or too - but it is a pretty good first word ... and the best yet for its market. If you have pubescent boys, do us all a favour: encourage them to read it.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1998
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