Everything in its Right Place (Transit Lounge 2020) by Tobias McCorkell is a coming of age story that is witty, light-hearted and easy to read and yet transverses some difficult and confronting issues. The main character, Ford McCullen, is growing up in Coburg in Melbourne, in a place called ‘The Compound’, a pair of units in the shadow of the old Pentridge Prison. He lives with his mum and her parents. His father has left the family for another man, and ‘nobody is coping’.
Ford’s paternal grandmother Queenie, who is mostly absent from the narrative but whose presence is deeply embedded in their lives, has enough good (monetary) fortune to send Ford to the rather posh St Anthony’s College in Toorak, a far cry from his previous friends who all attend school in the rather less posh Coburg. Ford takes up playing the violin and wearing a striped blazer and tie, and soon becomes hopelessly divided into his two selves: his private school self and his grungier / risk-taking / drug-using previous self. He has great trouble reconciling the two.
Ford is a loveable and relatable character, especially where his relations are concerned – his mother, his father and all of his grandparents suffer from traits and foibles that sometimes leave him thinking that ‘he just might be the only adult amongst them’. His mother suffers a never-ending series of crises and his father’s new homosexual lifestyle is never talked about or referred to, except in a dismissive way. His father’s first partner, Ken, seems dodgy and there is a general feeling that something untoward has happened regarding him, which is never quite explored or explained but only hinted at; his new partner Craig has his own issues. Ford believes he has been lumbered with the ‘McCullen curse’ and sometimes finds it difficult to see a way out of his unhappy and unaspiring life.
This can be quite a dark read, taking us to places of sex, drug-taking and loss of identity / family dysfunction that are uncomfortable to read. But McCorkell balances this with humour, snappy and authentic dialogue and a sardonic and sarcastic wit and take on the negatives of Ford’s situation. It is strange yet somehow fitting that the image of the platypus on the cover is one of ultimate hope; it’s splash an ethereal and rare event, layered with meaning and optimism.
Ford is vulnerable and endearing. At times he is innocent and hard-done-by, but at other times he makes stupid, senseless decisions, he takes ridiculous risks, he becomes his own worst enemy by his actions, and he decides to travel on the path that we know will not end well. But at the same time, we see into his heart and his thoughts, and we know what exposure, weakness and defencelessness lives there. He is frightened and brave, beaten and threatening, misunderstood and yet takes advantage of others; in short, he is like all of us: a great swirling mass of opposites and contrariness, all vying to win over the other elements of our personalities. This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys this genre of coming-of-age stories alight with grit, danger, humour, risks and self-deprecation.