A pop novel with a big heart
There’s a passage in When Jokers Were Kings just near the end where the voices of the two main characters lock in a “lyrical embrace” singing an Elvis Presley tribute song.
One is a lowly mailroom clerk and the other the PA to a dodgy bank executive under investigation.
They work for one of the big Docklands banks before the lockdown.
The bank inquiry is underway and Melbourne’s nouveau financial district is not looking good with its cavalier attitude towards staff and customers.
This novel by John Tesarsch is a timely reminder of how the corporate sector once behaved with execs getting all the limelight and employees seeking solace in fantasy, such as tribute bands.
The talented Mr Tesarsch, a musician and a lawyer, has written four novels and has a good feel for sad sack characters.
Bertie Jones, the mail clerk, joins a long line of tribute characters to the “soggy” protagonist of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, published in 1993.
Bertie is overweight and fearful, like The Shipping News prototype, but luckily comes under the wing of an entrepreneurial type who is feeding the press inside information about the bank.
The whistle blower scenario is clever, if undeveloped, and emerges quite slowly as the corporate and musical narratives intertwine.
The Southern Cross Bank, the site of all these repressed talents, could have been rendered more closely. There is not much grounding detail about the everyday workplace nor the offending financial practices.
Tesarsch’s heart is clearly more attuned to the intricacies of the music scene and the difficulties of making it and staying sober while on tour.
There are some hilarious scenes such as the one when the heroes seek cover in a hot dog stand on a country road and are forced to serve a group of truck driver regulars.
Tesarsch has excellent command of the “old-school loser who falls into scrapes and eventually makes good” kind of narrative.
On the negative side, Bertie is fairly basic and generic. The only thing really going for him is his feel for music.
He has the ability to win over crowds in country pubs, even those steeped in outlaw myths.
This is pretty typical Aussie vernacular and the Docklands connection is more of a launching pad than an exploration of banks and all of their practices.
The bad guys eventually get their comeuppance, and the hero rescues the heroine from “cancel” culture. Michael Jackson is her celebrity cover.
This is a pop novel with a big heart that ends, quite fittingly, on the Gold Coast.
When Jokers Were Kings, John Tesarsch, Affirm Press, 2022. •