Aussie Comes of Age
IN her novel "Longleg," Australian writer Glenda Adams explores the themes of identity and the ties between generations, of destiny and the search for fulfillment. She examines these themes by tracing the development of her protagonist, William Badger, from a forlorn, lonely 10-year-old boy to a well-traveled, optimistic 40-year-old man.
Now published for the first time in the United States, "Longleg" won the Age Fiction Book of the Year award in 1990 and the National Council Award in 1991 in Australia.
William, an only child living in Sydney, knows little of his past and his family, and has no school friends. He dwells in a world of dreams and fantasies, and seems out of touch with reality. Instead of hoping for a real friend, he wants a boy mannequin as a companion - like those he has seen in shop windows - which he will name "Billy Longleg."
Adams reveals conflict between the members of the Badger household. William's father, Wally, is an unemployed 50-year-old, a former soldier who was injured in World War I. Although he stolidly affirms "we Badgers are do-ers", he never seems to show any activity. To William, he is "the oldest father in the world."
In contrast, Adams presents William's mother, Rose, as a dazzling, golden, effervescent young woman with a zest for life. William thinks she is the "youngest, loveliest mother in the world."
The novel begins with an abandonment. Without explanation, Rose leaves William at a boarding house in Sydney's Manly Beach. Although later rescued by his father, he is not given a reason for Rose's actions, and he does not question his parents.
The tragic tone Adams uses to portray William is offset with light humor. In a witty style, she shows that he hides chocolate bars in his bedroom in case of sudden catastrophe, leaving "decoys," his least favorite sweets, around the room to fool his "plundering" mother.
Then "Longleg" shifts to William's later years. He is in his 20s and works at a dreary job in the stationery section of a department store. He befriends Meg Meese, a new employee. Adams comically contrasts the two in a lively, endearing manner. While William's scope is limited to the pens-and-pencils department and the peanut-butter sandwiches he has eaten for lunch for years, Meg talks of her extravagant fantasies and ambitions until he feels as if he is "floundering."
Meg broadens William's outlook and drags him to a typing course, telling her classmates that he is the nephew of an English baronet in Rome. By questioning him about his family and past, she awakens in him a growing desire to find his identity.
A grave twist in the plot forces William to travel abroad, where he attempts to find meaning and fulfillment. Cautious, careful William is plunged into the colorful, exciting students' revolution in Europe in 1968. He accidentally becomes involved with a radical left-wing group. Adams satirizes William's new-found companions. Although pretending to be sophisticated intellectuals, they call themselves the "Barbarians" and form childish plans to threaten traditional authority, such as popping balloons to d isturb a mayor's speech.
William's outward travels symbolize his inward search. During his journeys, he wonders about the paths he has taken in his life, asking himself if he has perhaps "reached his destination."
Exhilaration and jubilation end the novel. Back in Australia, William finds completeness and satisfaction. Consoling a tearful boy on a Sydney train, he tells him that "No one can take your past away from you. ...it's a comforting thing, a blessing, not a burden." He reasons that "You have to be a do-er" and participate in life, affirming that "he had certainly loved and would surely love again."
Adams's ability to absorb readers in William and his inner discoveries makes "Longleg" a pleasure to read.