Doust, Jon. Return Ticket. Fremantle Press, 2020. RRP $29.99. 264pp. ISBN: 9781925816396
What does it mean to be a man? In Return Ticket, Jon Doust’s protagonist Jack Muir finds himself asking that very question.
There are numerous discussions currently happening around gender equality and stereotypes. The toxic masculinity that has become so ingrained in Western culture is being rejected in myriad ways. Return Ticket is set in the 1970s and, unusually for that era, Doust presents Jack Muir as a character who is made strong by the relationships he has with the women around him, and who rejects stereotypes and perceptions of masculinity to create a very different idea of what it is to be a man.
Return Ticket is linked to Doust’s previous titles, the Miles Franklin longlisted Boy on a Wire and To the Highlands, but it is easily read as a standalone. For all the verve and vivacity of Jack Muir, the predominant atmosphere of this book is one of quiet contemplation. Switching between first and third person narratives, it offers an insight into the mind and true feelings of the protagonist, as well as a more objective view of him as a husband, a son and a friend.
Masculinity is explored in rich, unfettered detail, most notably through Muir’s penchant for dishwashing as he travels from Western Australia to South Africa and Israel. For him, this act is an art form that holds a kind of reverence and that turns on its head the stereotype of a menial, restrictive task. Muir not only embraces this task, but volunteers for it, putting himself in the kitchen (traditionally a feminine-domestic space) and using the time to reflect on, and understand, himself.
I hear no-one else in the room. There are no sounds, no music, just the swish of the dish and the plop of the crock in the rinsing sink. Some days, I am back on Kibbutz Gavrot, wearing nothing but Speedos, rubber gloves and a rubber apron. As the dishes arrive over the kitchen counter, I pull them into the huge tubs and nothing escapes my vigour. (9)
The combination of ‘Speedos’, an item of clothing associated with men, sporting prowess and peacocking, is covered by the feminine-domestic of rubber gloves and apron. Aside from these items he wears nothing, he is stripped bare and, as he subtly observes, ‘nothing escapes my vigour’. It is in the feminine space that Muir can interrogate who he is.
Doust uses Muir’s rejection of male stereotypes to question the dominant archetype of masculinity and present a different ideal, one that is focused on balance. When Muir is told he needs to start using weights after a bodysurfing injury, he installs gymnastics rings.
I don’t like gyms, never did, full of sweaty, puffing men in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, parading their egos and worshipping their physiques … I spotted the gymnastic rings and bought them. Not only do they take up less space than barbells, they are more challenging, due to the need to balance the entire body while lifting it through chin-ups, pull-ups and leg lifts. (110)
Even physically, Muir is focused on balance. He rejects traditional masculine ideals of strength, power and worship of form and physique, for ones of balance, challenge and oneness with his entire body.
Doust uses humour to strengthen Muir’s character; the issues and themes that the book explores could easily become emotionally overwhelming so Muir makes jokes to process his own responses to and rejections of shocking or challenging situations. During his time in South Africa he makes a joke about being ‘instrumental in [South Africa’s] final collapse’ (27), but his actions show the sincerity behind his words in his outright rejection of inequality.
I recognise no colour, said Muir, only shapes. These items I carry are shaped like parcels and this is the queue for items of that shape. (29)
If Muir were to be serious in his stance against apartheid, he would be putting himself in danger so he protects himself through the use of light-hearted quips. But his words still find their target; he positions himself as colourblind but notes that shape categorises us, and human beings are all the same shape. Muir questions the validity of rules around segregation and polarisation. Men versus women, black versus white, these battles are seen as unnecessary in his world.
Much of Muir’s understanding of masculinity is found in his relationships with women. Rather than see them as figures he needs to dominate, Muir views women as equals who give him strength and teach him about love, compassion and understanding. The language Doust uses to characterise female characters is neither voyeuristic nor sexual.
She was in the peaches. Then the apricots. Then she stood in front of me and asked if I was the Australian the others had been talking about … although I couldn’t see her legs I knew they were hard and strong.’ (55)
Here, Muir is describing the point where he meets Neeva, his first wife. The imagery of her among fruit is symbolic of women as life giving. She is also active, not passive; she approaches Muir. From the offset she is portrayed as strong and equal. As is Muir’s mother, and Neeva’s mother, who he says defined him.
When she sighed her final breath, I remembered Neeva’s mother, another survivor of great courage and love. Together they altered the course of my life. (249)
Doust has created a book that takes a refreshing look at masculinity, that is beautiful in its exploration of love. Through Jack Muir he teaches us that woman or man, black or white, we are, at the end of it, all human beings.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.