Mario La Marca on Hey Joe
Perhaps it’s my age, or maybe I just listen to the right kind of music, but as soon as I saw the cover of this novel, the song from which it takes its title popped into my head and refused to leave.
For those who may not be aware, ‘Hey Joe’ is a song by the late guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix (though not about war, the song’s first line is ‘Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand’ – an apt image for this book’s subplot). Co-incidentally, just prior to reading this novel, I had watched a tape of Hendrix playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock. In retrospect, the performance is a wonderful analogy for the book. In a similar vein to the Hendrix solo, the novel cuts between a melodic rhythm (the Vietnamese countryside) and a frantic pace (the frenetic life of anti-war protestors on the run from authority), two diverse, yet related, states.
Jimi Thorn, a restless young man in his early 20’s, undertakes a
journey of self-discovery, a ‘heart’s journey...’ trying
to locate a father he can only but wistfully remember. He travels to Vietnam,
where indications are that his father may be, armed with little more than
distant memories, dated postcards and his father’s half-completed
manuscript for a novel. Arriving there, he proceeds to take us on a wonderful,
if a little rushed, journey across a varied and beautiful landscape.
These two stories are enmeshed in the novel, bound with the glue that is Joe’s novel-in-progress: ‘Notes for a novel’. This collection of chapters, along with several letters by and to Joe, forms the basis for our understanding of Joe’s own life during the tumultuous days on Australian university campuses in the latter part of the war in Vietnam. It also serves as a tenuous connection between father and son, revealing to the curious Jimi much about his father’s character that absence has denied him.
Hyde introduces his novel with a forceful preface in which he makes absolutely clear his beliefs about the Australian and US involvement in Vietnam from the 50’s through to the 70’s (and, as we find through the novel, presumably still believes). It is an interesting preface for several reasons, not the least being its emphatic presentation of Hyde’s perspective on the war. It does not, however, sit out of place in what is, in part, a political story. Effectively, Hyde’s preface is the first chapter of ‘Notes for a novel’.
The book works on several levels; reunion, love, war, understanding, and it also offers us an extremely sympathetic view of modern-day Vietnam, an aspect which I found particularly enjoyable. Hyde successfully conveys in some wonderful passages of vivid prose, a sense of movement and life in what is, doubtless, an extraordinarily beautiful country. Many passages within the novel contain references to water, and it is an element whose imagery pervades several areas of the book, from the constant perspiration and heavy humidity, the strain of moving forward towards one’s goal, through to some wonderful images of Jimi gliding through a lake, swimming to clear his mind, enveloped by the cool, cathartic waters. It is an interesting aspect of the book to reflect upon.
Hyde further develops this picture by presenting to us an image of the contradictions that exist throughout modern Asia. In an age where technology defines the concept of modernity and provides the physical manifestation of developing countries’ aspirations for a Western lifestyle, Hyde presents us with the image of a sprawling market village in the middle of a rainforest bordering the Chinese frontier, a four story warehouse full of every conceivable electronic product dominating. ‘…buggered if I know who bought the stuff’, muses Joe quite innocently, a line quite profound in its naive, off-the-cuff delivery.
On occasion, it does feel as if Hyde has tried, in too few words, to meld a chaotic world of emotions and experiences, of love and war, into a single novel. Some of the co-incidences and chance meetings in Jimi’s journey of discovery do seem a little too far-fetched. But Hey Joe has a great feel to it, and we can readily excuse these as poetic licence.
In an age when might reigns supreme and military solutions seem to be the preferred method for dealing with national problems, Hey Joe rings a few warning bells for the little guy who, without fail, is left to deal with the complexities and problems such actions create.