On the Mat
by Archimede Fusillo
Published by Lothian Books
96 pages, 2006
Wrestling with Boyhood
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Like Archimede Fusillo's other books, On the Mat is about a boy's experiences in growing up. There are no girls in this tale at all, unless you count the young hero's mother. Unlike other of Fusillo's books, however, it isn't set in the city. The autobiographical elements which appear in much of Archie Fusillo's fiction aren't here, though he says he got the idea from something his son and friends did at school.
Claude is a big lad, living in a small Victorian country town. He is more the gentle giant type than a big bully. In fact, the closest thing to a bully in his life is athletic all-rounder Tony De Silva, the school hero followed around by a group of fans, arrogant son of the local television news presenter. Tony sneers down his perfect nose at Claude, who is hopeless at sport, coming so far after the others during the school athletic sports that he is still running while the others are already collecting their prizes. Claude's father is dead. There are things about his name that Claude's mother has never told him. Meanwhile, his life is about to change for the better when he meets small skinny Mario, who keeps calling him Big Fella without explaining why. Is it just a reference to his height or is there more to it?
Claude learns that, despite his small and skinny build, Mario is an expert wrestler, being trained by his uncle, pub cleaner Mr. Lucca, who was once a legendary TV wrestler called Whitetail. Whitetail wants to stage a final wrestling match that was supposed to take place between himself and the Big Fella before their TV show was canceled. The script was written, but never performed.
Can Claude learn a new sport that he can actually do well? Will Tony spoil it for him? Will the bout take place? Who will win, according to the script?
On the Mat is easy reading and should suit sport-loving older boys who are reluctant readers, or younger boys of about 12 or 13. It is full of Fusillo's usual gentle humor, though it is not a laugh-out-loud book like An Earful of Static.
TV wrestling was big in Melbourne during the 1960s and 1970s, with bouts taking place at that city's Festival Hall every Sunday. The wrestlers all had names like Gravestone and Big Chief someone-or-other and grunted into the microphone that they were going to slaughter each other, but it was all acting and the audience knew it and enjoyed it, as did the wrestlers. The author brings that world to life for children and brings it back for those of us who can actually remember the era. I never knew, to be honest, that it could be so fascinating, but Fusillo makes it so.
The ending would be a bit full of coincidence for an adult novel, but it works beautifully in a book for children and I must say it's a nice, positive tale. Fusillo's novel Bruises, the last one I read, was very good, but also grim. It's a relief to read an upbeat story this time, in which even the sneering Tony De Silva gets a happy ending. | March 2006
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.