Michael Gerard Bauer, Don’t Call Me Ishmael

Templar, 2012. ISBN 978-1848776838

Fourteen year old Ishmael Leseur has multiple problems. For one, he is the only known sufferer of Ishmael Leseur syndrome, which puts him straight on the imbecile scale. He is not helped by having a younger sister who is a genius. Then there’s his father, whose ability to embarrass his son with the story of his birth, told to anyone and everyone, is on an epic scale. It’s the facts of his birth that have landed him with his unfortunate name. ‘Call me Ishmael’ is the opening line of Moby Dick, and that’s just what his parents did. But the biggest source of his woes is Barry Bagsley, a bully who plays humiliating games with Ishmael’s name and reduces him to an inarticulate heap, invisibility his chief desire.

Then new boy James Scobie sits next to Ishmael in class. James is a weird looking geek with obsessive tendencies, and will get eaten alive by Barry and his cronies, and Ishmael will be made to suffer alongside him. Only that’s not what happens. James stands up to Barry, seemingly impervious to his taunts.

Against all his instincts, tongue-tied Ishmael is persuaded to join James’ debating team, on strict condition that his role is a non-speaking one. Of course, things go wrong, and at the semi-finals of the debating competition he finds himself at the podium. The presence of the lovely Kelly Faulkner in the rival team induces total incoherence. His shame does not end there.

This is a novel which tackles serious issues. It is also genuinely funny. Bauer has an enviable ability to treat teenage concerns with a humorous touch while never belittling them. He has a great ear for teenage dialogue, no doubt aided by his time as a teacher. The story is set in Bauer’s native Australia. Neither this nor the Moby Dick references will mar the enjoyment of the non-antipodean or non-literary reader.

The novel ends on an optimistic note. I suspect Ishmael has problems to come though. Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs is due for publication in June.