Review: Brendan Cowell's 'Plum' is a fast-paced, disarmingly enjoyable read

  • Plum, by Brendan Cowell. Fourth Estate, $32.99.

In the static-filled mind of ex-NRL legend Peter 'Plum' Lum, poetry is unfurling. After a near-miss encounter at the airport he works at, where a seizure rendered him insensible, almost leading to a plane crash on the tarmac, Plum is in crisis. For years, the one thing he could rely on was his body - the body that gave him a stellar career in NRL, that has stayed fit and healthy thanks to daily soft-sand runs and despite a poor diet of beer, cocaine and pub meals. Now, he has to contend with brain disease, caused from the numerous concussions he suffered on the field.

The second novel from Brendan Cowell, Plum is a disarmingly engaging book, centering on the unravelling and resurrection of the eponymous protagonist. His mid-life is in chaos; friends are descending into the dismal and depressing realities of their older age, gambling and alcohol addictions taking over. His son feels betrayed by him and his girlfriend has left him.

And through it all lurks the constant menacing presence of his decaying mind. But even as Plum is losing his sense of self, mysterious visits from literary geniuses (Bukowski, Plath, Whitman and Kerouac) guide him towards rebirth as a poet.

Cowell's writing creates the sensation of being caught in the maelstrom of Plum's addled mind, rich with imagery and description, and with a constant driving pace. Every sweaty beer-soaked bender, every aching migraine and confused self-sabotaging hangover leaps off the page and envelops the reader.

The characters in this book are layered and deeply drawn, often starting from stereotype and building out into a unique depiction of Australian masculinity - and nearly all of the key characters in Plum are men. Cowell's preoccupation with unravelling and understanding masculinity is the undercurrent of the novel, though he doesn't necessarily reach a conclusion.

Plum is a novel of action, constantly moving at a fast clip between scenes and spaces. There is little introspection, with the reflection occurring between characters as opposed to via inner monologue. Cowell uses the magic realist method of the visiting poets to draw out Plum's subconscious, without having to contradict his nature as a stoic and unfulfilled middle-aged Aussie bloke. These conversations are still, ultimately, in his own head.

A surprise highlight are the poems that Plum and his peers write. There is something utterly charming (if somewhat unrealistic) about an NRL legend rediscovering his purpose through poetry, and Cowell deserves admiration for somehow pulling this off in a way that feels authentic and not absurd.

A thoroughly enjoyable read, and one that both entertains and elicits an intellectual engagement with the big question of what makes a life well lived.