Gabrielle Carey is often unfairly referred to as ‘the other writer’ of Puberty Blues (first published in 1979), overshadowed by the effusive Kathy Lette, who has written a series of laugh-out-loud best sellers. While Gabrielle might prefer a life with less publicity, she is no lesser a writer.
I first read Puberty Blues in 1981, and on re-reading it this year to coincide with the new Channel 10 miniseries based on the book, it’s hard to see where Kathy stops and Gabrielle begins, and vice versa. This is a seamlessly co-authored book about a no-holes-barred coming of age.
It’s Sydney in the 70s. To be correct, it’s The Shire in the 70s – the Sutherland Shire for those who are unfamiliar with the term; a parochial and rather picturesque waterside part of Sydney’s sprawl, south of the city. The Shire doesn’t really associate itself as being part of Sydney, it’s its own entity, but that’s by the by.
Debbie and Sue are thirteen and best friends. Like any teenage girls in their first year in high school, they are desperate to fit in, to be accepted, to be two of the cool kids. Most of all, they want to be part of the gang that hangs at Greenhills beach at North Cronulla, where the best surfers and the coolest chicks spend their lives on the beach. Long blonde hair, a deep suntan and a packet of Malboros are de rigeur.
They were the ‘uniform’ of “little white shirts, short-sleeved jumpers, thongs and straight-legged Levis covering little black bikinis“, signalling they are cool Cronulla girls and not “Bankies” from the western suburbs who wear flared Amcos. They are slaves to their surfie-chick lifestyle and slaves to the surfies, fetching the boys food such as Chiko Rolls but not eating themselves. “Girls never ate in front of their boyfriends. It was unladylike to open your mouth and shove something in it. We were also busting to go to the dunny but that was too rude for girls. Our stomachs rumbled and our bladders burst. It was a great day at the beach.” Women’s lib may have been turning around the lives and careers of their mothers, but surfie culture saw girls taking a back and very adoring seat to their boys. Being surfer chicks meant not going in the water oneself. Debbie and Sue are destined to sit on the beach, not even taking a dip on the hottest days; picking up a surfboard themselves is totally out of the question. They are subservient but they love it, they are living their teenage dream.
Cheating in an exam and not dobbing on other cheaters gets Sue and Debbie into the coolest gang, the one that sits at the back of the bus. “The best thing about being in the gang was that all the spunkiest guys on Cronulla Beach were in it. It didn’t matter what boy picked you, ’cause in the looks department, you never got a bummer.”
They’re longing to lose their virginity – boys have already ‘titted them off’ and put hands down their pants, but they haven’t gone the whole way yet; they have, however, progressed to dry roots on Cronulla beach. But now it’s time for the “spreading of the legs and the splitting up the middle“.
Debbie is ‘chosen’ by Bruce, who is 17, and Sue by Danny. A kiss and “Will you go round wiv me?” is standard courting practice. The boys, note, choose the girls and not the other way around. The girls are delighted but also pragmatic about sex. “You had to ‘go out’ with a guy for at least two weeks before you’d let him screw you. You had to time it perfectly. If you waited too long you were a tight-arsed prickteaser. If you let him too early, you were a slack-arsed moll. So, after a few weeks, he’d ask you for a root, and if you wanted to keep him, you’d do it.”
For Debbie, Bruce’s panel van is the chosen venue; first attempts don’t go well. This is an underdeveloped girl who hasn’t even had her first period, but she is too embarrassed to admit it.
Parents and family barely feature in Puberty Blues. (In the 1981 film and in the current miniseries, parents and family play a much larger role) For teenagers, your gang and your friends are your life. We meet Sue’s mother Mrs Knight, briefly, as the girls and their friends and boyfriends huddle together in the family’s tv room downstairs. When Mrs Knight comes downstairs with a packet of chips the kids spring off each other, hastily zippering up Levis.
Debbie’s parents, who are apparently reasonably well-off with a three storey brick house and a swimming pool, disapprove of Bruce and his panel van with sex posters on the walls. She reverts to subterfuge, meeting him on the corner of her street instead.
Parents who read this book when it was first released were horrified to find out that this work of fiction was based on reality and the behaviour of kids in the Shire at the time. Underage sex, gang rapes, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol (Brandivino! My God, I’d forgotten it existed!). Debbie and Sue lie cheerfully to their parents about spending evenings at the movies as they wander through a world of sex and surfers. When I first read this book I was 19 and had endured a very strict North Shore upbringing; hell, I wasn’t allowed out in daylight at 13 or 14, let alone at night. I was at first envious of the freedom Debbie and Sue had, then sorry for them, as fitting in with the cool kids doesn’t always bring happiness.
Debbie is still mortified that every time Bruce tries to root her, he can’t get in; she’s just too small and he’s too big. Finally he drops her, and she ‘goes round’ with Garry instead, becoming real friends with him. After three months together she and Garry haven’t had sex and Debbie is concerned Garry will drop her. Finally she has sex with him at Sue’s parent’s holiday house.
But times are changing. The girls turn fourteen and suddenly marijuana is in fashion. “Garden hoses all over Sylvania started shrinking. If we didn’t bong it, we smoked it in a joint.” Garry, however, has gone one step further and discovered heroin although Debbie doesn’t realise it at the time. She finds him remote and unaffectionate, and then finds Wayne instead.
As her body develops Debbie discovers she enjoys sex after all, and she and Wayne use every opportunity to root. She finds out she’s pregnant and can’t tell her parents, but miscarries almost immediately, to her relief. As a reader I was surprised that something so major could be covered in less than a page and rather unemotionally at that. In fact the book rushes to a conclusion in the last third at a pace that suggests to me the authors just wanted to get it finished.
Seeing Garry stoned out of his brain in the street is a wake-up call for Debbie and Sue; if they keep getting stoned on marijuana themselves and work their way up to heroin this could be them. He is pale and thin, his surfie physique now a ‘soggy slouch’. “He lifted up his blank face and seemed to stare straight through me.”
“It stinks,” I said, stamping out my cigarette.
So Debbie and Sue pool their money and buy a surfboard. Practising with the nerds first on South Cronulla, they work their way up to Greenhills beach. Their gang drops them. Their boyfriends drop them. Girls don’t surf, remember? The girls have a brilliant time on the board that afternoon. The reader gathers they’ve decided they don’t need boys, drugs or booze to be happy, they want to do their own thing and be respected for it, and they walk away from the beach leaving the others there. The End. An epilogue reveals that other characters in the book end up on drugs, in jail or unmarried mothers. Debbie and Sue, however, drop out of school and write this book when they are 18. As school dropouts, they have done much better than their old friends, which is scary in itself as a concept.
What I did love about re-reading this book was the language. It’s the language of my own teens, the slang, the way everything was unrool and guys were spunks and you didn’t have sex or make love, you rooted (which confused Americans!). If you’re not Australian you won’t get it. Um, if you’re not of a certain age you mightn’t get it either. Maybe it should come with footnotes or a glossary!
It’s not a long book – in fact it took me less than two hours to read it – and the voices in it are authentic. It’s funny as hell. I would love to see the term ‘slack-arsed moll’ come back into usage! It’s also scary as hell; as a semi-autobiographical novel, you ache for what these girls go through.
While Debbie is the main narrator, the book switches occasionally from first person to third when an episode concerns Sue; this can be a bit annoying and I’m surprised it wasn’t edited more carefully to make it more fluent and flowing.
It’s a time capsule of the 70s, with sexist attitudes and behaviour, but the issues for girls these days haven’t changed much. There is still the pressure to fit in with peers, although these days it’s likely to be having the right smartphone or the right charms on your Pandora. There is still the pressure to have sex with boys, to take drugs. Teenagers still sneak out the window at night and roam the streets. For teens there will always be a subculture adults can’t comprehend, and Puberty Blues captures it beautifully. It’s unrool. Deadset.
(I read Puberty Blues as a Kindle e-book.)