Jamaica, By Malcolm Knox

Click to follow

Six Australian friends – well, sort of – travel to Jamaica for a gruelling ocean swimming race; they train by drinking copious amounts of alcohol and taking all the drugs that they can lay their hands on.

Pongrass and Blackman are super-rich, arrogant, sex-obsessed, utterly unlikeable, but good athletes. Nayce is immature and, although married, still emotionally tied to his first love, Janey, who is the only woman on the team; cool, blonde and inscrutable. John Book is the quiet, dark, grown-up one. Finally, there's the emotional mess that is Hut, whose finances are in much worse trouble than his wife realises, and whose marriage is in much worse trouble than he realises. Hut's delusion about his own swimming prowess also makes him the likeliest member of the team to drown.

Malcolm Knox creates a vivid picture of Jamaica as a Third World country that is a playground for the rich; beautiful but always with a hint of danger below the surface. This is a fine comic novel about the jealousies, resentments and worries of men in early middle age who have yet to grow up. Knox is parsimonious with his release of information, so that we only gradually discover the secrets of the men's pasts while the story proceeds, and the ordeal of the race dramatises their relationships brilliantly. Knox's success is to make you care about these characters, especially Hut, while at the same time mercilessly exposing their flaws. Though his dissection of the psyche of the male is forensic, like a lot of male authors he is much easier on the women. The two main female characters – Janey and Hut's wife, Pen – are without serious flaws and far cleverer and further- seeing than the blokes. They are the super-egos to the egos of the men.

Jamaica is an absorbing and often very funny read; Knox can make you laugh on one page and wince on the next.