The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull
by Barry Jonsberg
Published by Allen & Unwin
264 pages, 2004
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
School fiction these days has changed dramatically since the days of Enid Blyton. There are quite a few school-based novels written by teachers, for one thing, so they're more believable. Some, like Mike Dumbleton's Watch Out For Jamie Joel and Chris Wheat's Grinders, are very serious, with touches of humor taken from the author's own experiences. Or there are humorous ones, such as the latter's Looselips, which are less common.
And then there's The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull by first-time novelist and teacher Barry Jonsberg: you're laughing virtually nonstop from page one onwards (I confess to the embarrassment of bursting into peals of laughter on the train just as the ticket inspectors were boarding) and then, suddenly -- wham! Tragedy. And a couple of twists for good measure.
The story is seen from the viewpoint of bright, articulate Calma Harrison. Calma has an unlikely friendship with class clown Jaryd Kiffing, the Kiffo of the title. They are both members of dysfunctional families. He is living with an abusive father and the memory of a much-loved older brother who died under tragic circumstances, she with a loving mother who simply has no time to spend with her because she is working two jobs rather than accept a sole parent pension (Calma refers to her as the Fridge because they communicate mainly through notes left on the fridge). Short flashback scenes during the novel gradually explain the other reason for their friendship.
Kiffo has driven away a number of English teachers with his infuriating behavior and sees no reason why he can't do the same with Ms Payne (a name with meaning?), the new teacher. But Ms Payne -- the Pitbull of the title -- will not be driven away so easily. And she has a hold over his father that enables her to make Kiffo's life miserable. Calma wants to know what it is. Kiffo won't tell her, but he insists that this woman must go. At the very least he is going to trash her home. This attempt, in its turn, leads to a suspicion that she is peddling drugs. There are some very funny scenes as the two friends try to prove it and Calma is caught out in some cringingly embarrassing incidents. When it seems that, far from being a drug dealer, the Pitbull is a pillar of the community, Calma wants to drop the whole business. But Kiffo is determined to continue. Is he just obsessed by his desire to get rid of the teacher or is there more to it?
Jonsberg seems to be having some fun with clichés. If you were brought up with Enid Blyton's fiction, you'll recognize the one about school kids solving a mystery the police haven't a clue about, plus all those novels that begin with, "My English teacher wants me to write a journal, so I'm writing this..." Calma wants to know why teachers think kids will enjoy this pointless exercise. Calma's "journal entry of Lady Macbeth" is the one that had me laughing out loud on the train.
And then there are the twists at the end. In some ways, the author had painted himself into a corner; thinking about it, you can't see how else it could end, but it works. No, I won't tell you. Read the book. The journey is worthwhile. | May 2004
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.