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Underdogs: Three Novels

Markus Zusak






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  Also By Markus Zusak



  I guess there aren’t too many writers who can say their career started with a horror trip to the dentist — but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you take your good luck however you get it. For me, it was a trigger-happy dental surgeon. It was several fillings, hundreds of dollars paid in cash, and one small thought of revenge: What if two brothers tried to rob the dentist?

  That’s how became a writer.

  Of course, I’m not telling the whole truth. I left out my first embarrassing attempt at a book when I was sixteen (all eight pages of it), and the seven years of failed attempts that followed. For the better part of a decade, I’d been trying to write something very serious, but suddenly I knew what my next project would be. It was those brothers and their farcical holdup. They would use a baseball bat and a cricket bat as their weapons. They would get there and be immediately bewitched by the beautiful dental nurse behind the desk … and they would end up getting checkups instead — the beginning of The Underdog.

  All up, The Underdog took me a few months to write and edit. When I thought about publication, I held little hope. After all, three other manuscripts had already been rejected over the last seven years, and this was the one I had worked on least.

  Around this period was also the first time I ever went overseas. I left the manuscript under my bed with fifty dollars attached, for my brother to mail for me while I was away. When I rang to ask him to send it off, he did what any self-respecting older brother would do. He paid the eight dollars to mail it and kept the forty-two dollars change — and I started waiting for the rejection that never came.

  To this day, I remember it very clearly.

  I was woken at 2:20 a.m. in Vienna, where I was staying with my dad’s best friend. The phone was ringing, and strange as it sounds, I knew. It was the book. They were going to publish the book. I never went back to bed after that.

  Upon hearing the news from my father, I immediately called my two sisters, the first of whom told me she nearly hit the ceiling when she heard. The second one cried and told me she was so proud of me.

  Then I called my brother.

  My brother, in typical fashion, said, “Yeah. Pretty good.”

  This, to be fair, was most people’s version of screaming congratulations from a rooftop. It’s about as animated as my brother gets, and I knew he was happy.

  Since then, twelve years have passed, and it’s a real thrill for me that The Underdog is being released in America for the first time as part of this omnibus. When I think about these three books, I realize that the first one was my great fluke. The second was a slightly steadier step in the direction of where I wanted to go. The third brought with it the realization that it was time to move on again and rise to newer writing challenges.

  In the end, it’s like finding an old photo of yourself; you hope for as little embarrassment as possible. Of course, there are so many things I’d love to change, but I also look back with a lot of happiness. After twelve years, the doubts and fears subside — they loom larger over the work I’m doing now. For Cameron and Ruben, twelve years is enough time to just let them be, I think.

  All my best,


  Sydney, Australia

  September 2010


  For my family


  We were watching the telly when we decided to rob the dentist.

  “The dentist?” I asked my brother.

  “Sure, why not?” was his reply. “Do you know how much money goes through a dental surgery in a day? It’s obscene. If the prime minister was a dentist, the country wouldn’t be in the state it’s in right now, I can tell you. There’d be no unemployment, no racism, no sexism. Just money.”


  I agreed with my brother Ruben only to keep him happy. The truth was that he was just grandstanding again. It was one of his worst habits.

  That was the first truth, of two.

  The second was that even though we had decided to knock over our local dentist, we were never going to do it. So far this year we’d promised to rob the bakery, the fruit shop, the hardware, the fish ‘n’ chip shop, and the optometrist. It never happened.

  “And this time I’m serious.” Rube sat forward on the couch. He must have been seeing what I was thinking.

  We weren’t robbing anything.

  We were hopeless.

  Hopeless, pitiful, and a shake-your-head kind of pathetic.

  I myself had a job twice a week delivering newspapers but I got sacked after I broke some guy’s kitchen window. It wasn’t even a hard throw. It just happened. The window was there half open, I threw the paper, and Smack! It went through the glass. The bloke came running out and went berserk and hurled abuse at me as I stood there with a pile of ridiculous tears in my eyes. The job was gone — cursed from the start.

  My name’s Cameron Wolfe.

  I live in the city.

  I go to school.

  I’m not popular with the girls. I have a little bit of sense. I don’t have much sense.

  I have thick, furry hair that isn’t long but always looks messy and always sticks up, no matter how hard I try keeping it down.

  My older brother Ruben gets me into plenty of trouble.

  I get Rube into as much trouble as he gets me into.

  I have another brother named Steve who’s the oldest and is the winner of the family. He’s had quite a few girls and has a good job and he’s the one a lot of people like. He’s also some kind of good footballer on top of

  I have a sister named Sarah who sits on the couch with her boyfriend and has him stick his tongue down her throat whenever possible. Sarah’s second oldest.

  I have a father who constantly tells Rube and me to wash ourselves because he reckons we look filthy and stink like jungle animals crawling out of the mud.

  (“I don’t bloody stink!” I argue with him. “And
I have a shower quite bloody regularly!”

  “Well have you heard of soap? … I was once your age myself y’ know, and I know how filthy guys your age are.”

  “Is that right?”

  “Of course it is. I wouldn’t say it otherwise.” No point arguing on.)

  I have a mother who says very little but is the toughest thing in our house.

  I have a family, yes, that doesn’t really function without tomato sauce.

  I like winter.

  That’s me.

  Oh, and yeah, at the point in time I’m talking about, I had never, not even once, robbed a single thing in my life. I just talked about it with Rube, exactly like that day in the lounge room.


  Rube slapped Sarah on the arm as she kissed that boyfriend on our couch.

  “Oi — we’re gonna rob the dentist.” Sarah stopped. “Hey?” she enquired.

  “Ah, forget it.” Rube looked away. “Is this a useless house or isn’t it? There are ignorant people everywhere, too busy with ‘emselves to care.”

  “Ah, stop whingein’,” I told him.

  He looked at me. That was all he did, as Sarah got back down to business.

  I switched off the TV then and we left. We left to check out the dentist’s surgery we were going to “hit,” as Rube put it. (The real reason we went there was just to get out of the house, because Sarah and her boyfriend were going insane in the lounge room and our mother was cooking mushrooms in the kitchen, which stank out the whole place.)

  “Bloody mushrooms again,” I said as we walked out onto the street.

  “Yeah,” Rube smirked. “Just drown ‘em in tomato sauce again so you can’t taste ‘em.”

  “Bloody oath.”

  What whingers.

  “And there she is.” Rube smiled as we walked onto Main Street in the darkening air of June and winter. “Doctor Thomas G. Edmunds. Bachelor of Dental Surgery. Beautiful.”

  We started making a plan.

  Plan-making between my brother and me consisted of me asking questions and Rube answering them. It went like this:

  “Won’t we need a gun or somethin’? Or a knife? That fake gun we had got lost.”

  “It isn’t lost. It’s behind the couch.” “Y’ sure?”

  “Yes. I’m sure … and in any case, we don’t need it. All we need is the cricket bat and we’ll get next-door’s baseball bat, right?” He laughed, very sarcastically. “We swing those babies a few times and they can’t possibly say no.”



  Yeah, right.

  We scheduled everything for the next afternoon. We got the bats, we went over everything we had to remember, and we knew we weren’t going to do it. Even Rube knew.

  We went to the dentist next day anyway, and for the first time ever in one of our heists, we actually went inside.

  What greeted us was a shock, because behind the counter was the most brilliant dental nurse you’ve ever seen. I’m serious. She was writing something with her pen and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Never mind about the baseball bat I was holding. I forgot all about it. There was no robbery. We just stood there, Rube and I.

  Rube and I, and the dental nurse, in the room, together.

  “Be with y’ in a sec,” she said politely, without looking up. God almighty she was beautiful. Absolutely. Brilliant.

  “Oi,” Rube whispered to her, really quiet. He was making sure only I could hear him. “Oi … This is a holdup.”

  She didn’t hear.

  “Stupid bloody cow.” He looked at me and shook his head. “Y’ can’t even hold up a dentist anymore. Sheez. What’s the world comin’ to?”

  “Now.” She finally looked up. “What can I do for you fellas?”

  “Ah …” I was uneasy, but what else was I meant to say? Rube said nothing. There was silence. I had to break it. I smiled and fell apart. “Ah, we just came to get a checkup.”

  She smiled back. “When would you like it?”

  “Aah, tomorrow?”

  “Four o’clock okay?”

  “Yep.” I was nodding, wondering.

  She looked into me. Right in. Waiting. Helpf“So what are your names?”

  “Oh yeah,” I responded, laughing pretty stupidly. “Cameron and Ruben Wolfe.”

  She wrote it down, smiled again, and then spotted the cricket and baseball bats.

  “Just been puttin’ in some practice.” I lifted the baseball bat.

  “In the middle of winter?”

  “We can’t afford a football,” Rube interrupted us. We had a football and a soccer ball somewhere in our backyard. He pushed me toward the door. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”

  She grinned her happy-I’m-here-to-help smile. She said, “Okay, bye-ee.”

  I stayed a second and said, “Bye.” Bye.

  Could I think of nothing better?

  “Y’ bloody spastic,” Rube told me, once we were back outside. “Checkups,” he whined. “The old man wants us smellin’ like roses, sure enough, but he’s not interested in us havin’ clean teeth. He couldn’t give a bloody toss about our teeth!”

  “Well, who got us in there to begin with, ay? Whose great idea was it to rob the dentist? Not bloody mine, mate!”

  “Okay, okay.” Rube leaned against the wall. Traffic limped past us.

  “And what the hell was all that whisperin’ about?”

  I’d decided by now that while I had him against the wall I’d go in for the kill. “The only thing you forgot to say was please. Maybe she’d have heard y’ then. Oi, this is a holdup,” I imitated him with a whisper. “Absolutely pathetic.”

  Rube snapped. “All right! I blew it…. Still, I didn’t exactly see you swingin’ that baseball bat.” This was better now for Rube, since we were back on what I did wrong as opposed to what he did. “You didn’t swing a thing, mate…. You were too busy lookin’ in Blondie’s big blue eyes and starin’ at her, her breasts.”

  “I was not!” Breasts.

  Who was he kidding? Talking like that.

  “Oh yeah.” Rube kept laughing. “I seen you, y’ dirty little bastard.”

  “Ah, that’s lies.” But it wasn’t. Walking down Main Street, I knew I was in love with the beautiful blond dental nurse. I was already fantasizing about lying in the dentist chair with her over the top of me, on my lap, asking, “Are y’ comfortable, Cameron? Y’ feeling nice?”

  “Great,” I’d“Oi.”

  “Oi!” Rube shoved me. “Are you still listenin’?”

  I turned back to him. He continued talking.

  “So why don’t y’ tell me where the hell we’re gonna get the money for these checkups, ay?” He thought about it for a minute as we started up walking again and quickened the pace for home. “Nah, we’re better off canceling.”

  “No,” I answered. “No way, Rube.”

  “Dirty boy” was his retort. “Forget the nurse. She’s prob’ly doin’ it with Mister Doctor Dentist as we speak.”

  “Don’t you talk about her like that,” I warned him. Rube stopped walking again. Then he stared.

  Then he said, “You’re pitiful, y’ know that?”

  “I know.” I could only agree. “I guess you’re right.”

  “As always.”

  We walked on. Again. Tail between the legs.

  Oh, and by the way, we didn’t cancel.

  We considered asking our folks for the cash but they’d have wanted to know just why we went down there to begin with, and a discussion of that nature wasn’t exactly high on our list. I myself got the money I needed by taking it out from my stash under the wrecked corner of carpet in our room.

  We went back.

  I tried like hell to keep my hair down. For the nurse.

  We went back there the next day.

  It didn’t work — with the hair.

  We went back there next day and there was a kind of beastly dental nurse there of about forty years of age.

  “Now there’s
someone in your range,” Rube whispered at me in the waiting room. He was grinning like the dirty juvenile he had always been. He disgusted me, but then again, quite often, I disgusted myself.

  “Hey,” I told him and waved a finger. “I think you’ve got somethin’ stuck in your teeth there.”

  “Where?” He panicked. “Here?” He opened his mouth and grimaced a wide smile. “Is it gone?”

  “Nah — further right. That way.” There was nothing there, of course, and when he looked at his reflection in the dental surgery fish tank and found out, he returned and slapped me across the back of the head.

  “Huh.” He kept going with his original line. “Y’ dirty boy.” He chuckled. “I’ll admit it, thoughe was good. She was fully great.”


  “Not like middle-aged fat woman here, ay?”

  I laughed. Boys like us — boys in general — would have to be the scum of the earth. Most of the time, anyway. I swear it, we spend most of our time being inhumane.

  We need a good kick in the pants, as my old man always says (and gives us). He’s right.

  The nurse came in. “Right, who’s first?” All quiet.

  Then, “Me.”

  I stood up. I decided it would be best to get this over with quickly.

  In the end, it wasn’t too bad. There was just this fluoride treatment stuff that tasted pretty ordinary and some scratching around inside from the big man. There was no drill. Not for us. There is no justice in the world.

  Or maybe there is …

  The dentist ended up robbing us. He was pretty pricey, even for the little bit he did for us.

  “All that money,” I said after we’d walked out again.

  “Still,” Rube was finally the one not doing the complaining, “no drill.” He punched my shoulder. “I s’pose. No chocolate biscuits at our joint. It’s good for somethin’, ay. Good for the fangs … We’ve got a genius for a mother.”

  I disagreed. “Nah, she’s just tight.”

  We laughed, but we knew Mum was brilliant. It was just Dad that was a worry.

  Back home, not much was going on. We could smell leftover mushrooms heating on the stove and Sarah was going at it on the couch again. No point going in.

  I went into Rube’s and my room and looked at the city that spread its filthy breath across the horizon. The sun was pale yellow behind it and the buildings were like the feet of huge black beasts lying down.