The West

Nick Earls
Nick Earls

A middle-aged man on the road can develop some pretty eccentric habits, as author Nick Earls can attest.

Take laundry, for instance. The Brisbane-based writer has developed an ingenious method for washing his jogging gear then wringing it out while in the nude.

It's all well and good, until housekeeping comes along. Bum up, dignity not intact. Epic fail. It's an experience his main character, Andrew van Fleet, has while acting as a minder in his new career as a failing radio-station boss.

Like all good authors, Earls has drawn on his experiences to catalogue the culture shock so-called analogue men have in the digital world. It's middle age, in the age of Facebook. And sometimes, it's not pretty.

Northern Ireland-born Earls says he was trying to explore manhood in the context of physical decline. "Years ago, with Zigzag Street, Bachelor Kisses and Perfect Skin, I wrote novels that were primarily comedies but also, I hope, said something not just about their central characters but about people more generally, about us," the former GP says.

"I started accumulating ideas for Analogue Men quite a few years ago, having by then written a whole range of different things since I wrote those early comedies. I realised that this was an opportunity to write that kind of book again. I needed a new way in, and I realised that with a character like this, I had a new way in.

Earls has been a career author for many years but his last clinical role 20 years ago was doing health assessments for a major health insurer.

"One of the programs we ran was for business executives," he says. "I'd repeatedly get men coming in who were about 40, who had put on some weight and weren't in great shape.

"Back then I was pretty scrawny, and I'm less scrawny now, and I was just starting to run and so many of them would start off by saying 'I used to look like you'."

During their 30s the men had gained about a kilogram a year, ending the decade 10kg heavier.

It's a not-unfamiliar story and one Earls' running-mad character struggles with in the book.

"I had seen that pattern in that part of my professional life back then and I thought 'It really sounds like time to give that to a character; I can really connect with that now and I know a lot of people who are going through that experience'. I wanted (it) to be an entertaining book that people wanted to read, but at the same time I wanted that thread to be running through it," he says.

Earls wanted the book to be about current-day men in their 40s and some of the issues they faced such as their roles in their families and how they deal with change, technological and physical.

"However much you try to fight it off, as years pass some things do go through wear and tear, and things do change a bit," he says.

"I still run every day and I'm doing what I can but my body's not going to be what it was 20 years ago."

Company rebuilder Van Fleet has taken a new role in his home town, Brisbane, cleaning up a relatively hopeless project, a radio station.

The 49-year-old's father is ailing, his wife antagonistic and his kids hostile. And his talent, shock jock Brian Brightman, is abominable.

It's no great life to return to and, as van Fleet is keenly aware, one where is he found more than lacking.

Technology has passed him by, just as it has his 70-something father, a widower and former DJ who, despite his rectal cancer struggles, is still more across the iGeneration.

Van Fleet is a father of twins, a boy and a girl, and their disdain for him is glacial. However, he tries and eventually succeeds at making some headway — inducing the classic cringe as he bumbles through a modern version of "the sex talk". Sometimes trying, he finds, is enough.

The analogue man learns an age-old lesson, that a man is defined by his actions and the quality of his deeds.

"When I create a character, particularly my central character, I want someone who is interesting and feels real, and who might have quite a few virtues but is unlikely to be perfect, who hasn't necessarily made all the right choices," Earls says.

Brightman is such a character, a cringing shock jock with waterworks issues who exposes himself at a school.

Excursions are a danger zone for the 49-year-old character, whose outrageous get-it-wrong antics are likely to attract fans.

Van Fleet takes on a role as minder to Brightman during a particularly memorable event weekend.

The shock jock ends up in the mouth of a shark, literally, and winds up in hospital after Van Fleet's GP wife diagnoses his penile dysfunction issues. Really.

It's physical comedy on the page and reflects a fundamental truth: ageing is not always done gracefully.

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