This guide complements the study of the novel Max by Michael Hyde, for Years 9-12. Max explores the issue of teenage suicide against a backdrop of graffiti and kayaking, and considers the themes of risk taking, family support, role models, spirituality, love, and adult authority. The guide offers a selection of activities to help students form an under-standing of the issues and themes of the novel. It is divided into ten sections and concludes with a list of essay topics.
Max’s world is thrown into chaos when he learns that his best friend Lou has committed suicide. This is reflected in the following quotes:
‘We were mates, Lou. You’re supposed to talk to y’mates, you know. Not pretend that everything’s OK – she’ll be jake, mate. Why the hell . . . What the hell were you doing?! Saying nothing. Did you say anything? Did you say something I missed?’ (p. 22)
black and red snakes with white paint daubed along their bodies, heads reared back, ready to strike into a tangle of words. Along the bottom the Big Dipper spewed from a decaying head. (p. 19)
However in the last chapter the image of Max is quite different.
Max carefully stands in his kayak. Legs balanced, arms outstretched, he floats his way down the river . . .
Max breathes in and feels Lou all around him. (p. 173-174)
The critical question about this novel is:
How did Max get from one point to the other?
How did he change from the angry, confused, sad and alienated youth at the beginning of the novel, to the (almost) calm, balanced and focused human being of the final chapter?
‘Max’s mind was in a whirl.’ (p. 85)
Max unwittingly gets himself entangled in a number of dramatic and dangerous situations between the time of Lou’s death, and the final image of Max floating peacefully down the river in his kayak. These include:
Completing the final piece and then being chased by the police on the bridge. (Chapter 2)
Paddling through the tunnel, cutting his head and nearly drowning. (Chapter 11)
Writing the graffiti at his school. (Chapters 12-13)
Paddling over the falls and being saved by Nick. (Chapters 17-18)
Getting caught in the storm while paddling in the inlet at Browns Beach. (Chapter 23)
These actions seem to be part of an irresponsible and misguided response to the fact of Lou’s suicide. At the same time, they seem to be necessary for Max’s healing.
‘Max – will you promise me something?’ . . .
‘That you’ll stop doing this stuff? I don’t understand it. Well I kind of do but not really. All I know is that it is killing you. It’s killing me too, and I bet it’s killing your dad.’ – Mai (p. 134)
‘So goodbye, my young friend, and try to stay away from the life-threatening situations. They kill you in the end no matter who is keeping an eye out for you.’ – Nick (p. 138)
Sketch each scene (it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw very well) and then explain how each contributes to Max’s recovery.
Max picked up a pillow and hugged it to his face. He heard his door open again, knew it was his father and said, ‘I’m alright.’
‘OK, mate just checking.’ (p. 44)
Another very important factor in Max’s life in the weeks and months following Lou’s death is the support he receives from other people.
- Describe the support Max receives from people such as Dave (his father) Woody, Mai, Nick, Janet Turner (his teacher), and Meg (his mother).
- Then contrast Max’s situation with Lou’s, in particular Lou’s family life. (Chapters 5 and 16)
- Is this significant?
Paddling was nearly everything to Max. (p. 35)
Doing graffiti. That came close to paddling. The sweeping colours, the arching spray, tags, and bombing trains gave Max a rush he’d never known. (p. 36)
Paddling had been in his veins since birth. Before Max’s parents split up, they took him on short trips, long trips and even a camping trip, once on the Glenelg.
Photos of Max in canoes spilled out of every album they had. But when Woody came along, the trips stopped. Nobody was sure why. (p. 36)
But Max kept on paddling and Dave gave him his own kayak when he turned thirteen. (p. 36)
Max’s love for both paddling and graffiti is intense, almost spiritual. His passion for both these things is crucial to him coming to term with Lou’s death. Think of him paddling with Mai, or just going to visit Nick. And think of his determination to complete the piece he had started with Lou, his piece at the school, and finally his piece on the wall of Sam’s fruit shop in Brown’s Beach. We understand that paddling and graffiti are the things that Max lives for.
Give a talk about an interest you have that is as important to you
as paddling and graffiti are to Max.
Explain what it is, and where and when you do it.
Describe how it makes you feel.
Recall an important story regarding this interest.
Outline your hopes for the future.
Try and bring in some photographs (or video footage).
Read Lou’s essay again before you begin – ‘Something burns within me’. (pp. 125-126)
‘I knew a monk once. He told me that all life was an illusion and that the only thing that kept him glued together was contemplating his own death. It was the only definite thing in his whole life . . . Ah, but I don’t know. It is a strange thing to do. To give up your life voluntarily.’ (p. 72)
Lou commits suicide. This action confuses Max. At first Max is angry with Lou for not confiding in him, then he starts to question the significance of life. His behaviour becomes erratic and then reckless, as he searches for a reason not to commit the same act as his friend.
he was tired of the whirlpool of confusion and anger that beset him. (p. 131)
Max felt the claws of death on his back, piercing his flesh. (p. 132)
‘I wish I hadn’t been saved. I wish I was still floating face down.’ (p. 136)
The confusion in Max’s mind is reflected in the quote from the Ancient Greek playwright Euripides.
Who knoweth if to die
Be but to live . . .
And that called life
Be but death?
Some may argue that this quote romanticises the act of suicide. Max’s father, Dave, is certainly more forthright in his response to this issue.
‘Did he tell you that what Lou did was stupid?’ (p. 75)
‘Alright. Just be careful, OK? One death around the place is enough for a while. I don’t want my own son’s death added to the list.’ (p. 92)
Unfortunately suicide is not an uncommon act, particularly in this country, and particularly amongst the young. Peter Ellingsen, ‘Don’t Call Us a Generation’ (The Age – Saturday Extra; 6/5/00; pp. 1, 4-5) attempts to explain some of the contributing factors.
Mass media, they suggest, promote a superficial, materialistic, self-centred lifestyle that may be more dangerous than violence on TV. It is likely to leave the young particularly those from broken homes, with a culture of “delusion and meaninglessness”. Social commentator Hugh Mackay talks of a “negative, even nihilistic” mood. Australia appears to be the only nation in the world where suicide peaks among under-30s.
This is the dark side of the youth story. Suicide among 19- to 24-year-olds hit 446 in 1998, the fifth highest in the world, and an increase of 300 per cent since the boomer days, 30 years back. The experts blame divorce, high unemployment and family break-up – all exacerbated by the widening wealth divide.
An estimated 800,000 children are now reared in homes with no breadwinner. Gavin Duffy, from the Victorian Council of Social Service, worries that the Federal Government focuses on “the traditional family”, when among the worst off are single-parent families, which account for some 15 per cent.
Young people are now more likely to be mentally disturbed and depressed, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report says. It estimates that 22 per cent are overweight or obese, and that 20 per cent of young men and 10 per cent of young women are dependent on drugs or alcohol, or use them to harmful levels. Those without family support are hardest hit. More than half the 17- to 18-year-olds leaving residential care contemplate suicide. A third have attempted it. They are more likely to be out of work, and the girls are more likely to end up teenage mothers.
If you had the chance to talk to Lou in the days before his death, what advice would you give him? Write down what you would say to Lou in this context.
The big cop was gaining on him again. Max could feel fear pulling at his legs, weighing his body down. He faltered, turned and flung the rock in Fatman’s direction. (p. 26)
Detective Gillespie is a particularly ugly character.
‘And don’t open your fuckin’ mouth or say anything to anybody or your life won’t be worth living.’ (p. 81)
‘I’ll get you, no matter how many stories you come up with and you know why? Because I don’t give a shit about legalities when it comes to punks like you.” Then he added, “And I don’t give a shit about how many weak-as-piss friends of yours go and neck themselves, either.’ (p. 81)
For Max, this character represents the worst element of the adult world, the cruel and sadistic authority figure.
Is this a fair representation of the police? Is it a fair representation of adult authority in general? Discuss.
‘Tonight’s the full moon. A few of us always celebrate it.’ (p. 149)
There is a curious scene in Chapter 20 where Max attends a ceremony to celebrate the full moon. While Max is seemingly condescending of the gather-ing’s purpose, the strange affair seems to have an uplifting effect on him.
Furthermore, there are several aspects of this scene that relate in some way to Max’s internal world: Bob, the hapless alcoholic; the woman singing opera; the man with a tattoo of an eagle on his shoulder; the young woman dancing naked; Meg, Heather and co; and the man shaping auras.
Explain the scene of ‘the moon party’ in the context of the novel as a whole.
(Max is particularly interested in Bob. Perhaps Max can see similarities between Bob and Nick, men who are seemingly alone, and appear to have suffered significant pain at some point in their lives. Max learns that Bob’s situation deteriorated when Bob’s father died, even though he hardly knew him, and “That before he got like this he was . . . nice.” This reminds us of what Max is going through with the death of Lou. That Max’s reaction to Lou’s death could have lasting consequences; that he could well end up broken and alone like Bob.)
In the novel there are several places in Max’s life where he can escape from the stress of his life, where he feels more relaxed and content. These include the Maramingo River, Nick’s island, and the beaches, rivers, and inlets around Brown’s Beach. Write a descriptive piece about a special place in your life.
Holding his can in the air, he was Michelangelo in a grimy Sistine Chapel. (p. 21)
Max and Lou shared a love for graffiti; and Max clearly thinks that what he is doing is art, not an act of vandalism. Max receives support for this idea from various characters in the novel, most notably, Mai, his mother Meg, and Sam the fruit shop owner.
However, not everyone approves of the graffiti, clearly, the police don’t show a great of respect for it, neither does Mr Davidson the school principal, and even Max’s father Dave seems to have doubts about the value of Max’s graffiti.
Find out the laws in your state that relate graffiti. Then stage a court drama where youths are on trial for committing acts of graffiti vandalism. You will need a judge, defendants, lawyers for the defence, lawyers for the prosecution, and witnesses.
Make a short documentary film about the issue of graffiti.
A number of things happen in the novel that Max finds difficult to explain. In literature and film these events are often referred to as magic realism.
The first is the appearance of the two lines of graffiti above the last piece that Lou and Max did together. The police estimate that this graffiti is approximately five metres above ground level. (Chapter 2)
You should have talked to me
I’m supposed to be your friend
The second is when Max writes the graffiti at school, and the Da Vinci figure appears for the first time. Max explains, “I didn’t say I didn’t do them. I’m just saying I don’t remember anything very clearly.” (Chapter 13)
Autumn leaves and ants
The tunnel waits for us all
The third is when Max is saved by Nick. For Max wonders how Nick knew that he was in trouble (Chapters 17 and 18). Furthermore, there is something mysterious about Nick himself, his disappearances, and his connection with the crow.
‘Nick! It’s me – Max.’
A crow let out a single cry and then all was silent. (p. 40)
He was like fog that vanished in the first rays of sunshine. (p. 41)
‘So the crow is the spiritual bird for me.’ (p. 117)
All of this seems to come together in the last piece of graffiti that Max does in the novel, the piece on the wall of Sam’s fruit shop. (p.163)
A line of cursive golden script coiled down the wall:
He likes to glide but he knows sometimes
he has to flap
They know things
At Crowman’s feet limped a smaller crow, swathed in bandages, and in the corner of the piece stood Max’s tag, the Da Vinci man. (pp. 163-164)
What meaning do you make of Max’s final piece? Explain.
Make an advertising poster for the novel, which highlights the important symbols and images of the text.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Max’s teacher, Janet Turner, visits Max in hospital, and gives him a book of poetry by Dylan Thomas. She specifically marks one poem for Max to read, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. This addresses one of the important themes in the novel, as it implores the reader to fight against death – ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Later, Max thinks that Lou should have read that poem.
Write a poem about the novel, or an aspect of the novel.
(For example, retell the basic plot; focus on one important event; describe a particular character; focus on an important theme; express something unsaid.)
Read Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and draw parallels between it and the novel.
‘Max carefully stands in his kayak. Legs balanced, arms outstretched, he floats his way down the river. The chill of winter slaps his cheeks, jogging his memory. He remembers rats in dark tunnels, words on walls, railway bridges, kisses, waterfalls, and black crows. He remembers being rescued by Nick. He remembers.
Max breathes in and feels Lou all around him.’ (pp. 173-174)
At he end of the novel we understand that Max is better, not completely, but he has definitely started to heal, he has started to ‘get rid of it’. This is evident in the final image of Max in the Kayak. Here he is the physical embodiment of the balanced and centred Da Vinci figure.
More evidence for this is the way he fights to save himself when he is caught in the storm while kayaking in the inlet. The way he keeps battling even when, ‘His shoulders screamed out to stop and give up, his body ached and his spirit began to tire.’ (p. 168)
Still there are lots of things left unresolved:
His relationship with his father, ‘he wonders why he hasn’t told his father he loves him the way he told Meg when she rescued him.’ (p. 172)
Defining his relationship with Mai.
Coming to terms with the spiritual feelings that have emerged as a result of the soul searching he has had to do.
Predict what will happen in the next six to twelve months of Max’s life.
- Ultimately, Max is able to cope with the death of his best friend, because of the support he receives from family and friends. Discuss.
- Even though Max raises important questions about suicide, in the end it is a life-affirming novel. Discuss.
- It is impossible to overestimate the importance of spirituality in the novel. Discuss.
- Although Max cannot see past his own desperate situation, he is not the only character in the novel confronted by difficulty. Discuss.