Themes and Issues
Friendship is one of the key issues in The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull. The friendship between Calma and Kiffo is an important part of the narrative. Friendship is about loyalty, selflessness, trust and support. Although they make an odd couple – Kiffo is violent and aggressive, Calma is an exceptionally bright and potentially high achieving student – they form a strong friendship.
Throughout the novel, Barry Jonsberg uses a number of flashbacks to illustrate how their friendship developed. Their friendship started to develop in primary school when Calma finds Kiffo crying over the death of his older brother. One day she notices that he doesn’t have any food for lunch. Feeling a pang of sympathy, she offers him some of hers. Later, she lets him copy some of her answers during a test. Although he’s initially unresponsive to these gestures, it soon becomes apparent that he appreciates her kindness. When she’s being hassled by a bully, Kiffo steps in to protect her and offers his support when her father leaves. Their loyalty and support for each other continues into high school. Calma selflessly stands up for Kiffo when he is being humiliated by Miss Payne. Her loyalty also compels her to help him trash Miss Payne’s house and investigate her suspicious behaviour: “Whatever Kiffo was up to, I was going to be a part of it as well. We were friends.”
It isn’t until the end of the novel, when we read the simile exercise that he completed for Miss Brinkin, that we realise the depth of his feelings for Calma: “She’s like, you know, smart and everything but she’s also like the best mate that anyone could have. She’s never talked to me like I’m dumb. I like her, like loads. I trust her like I don’t trust no one else.”
It’s easy to see why Kiffo feels so strongly about his friendship with Calma. Regularly beaten and yelled at by his father, he lives in a world completely devoid of love. After the death of his brother, it’s very unlikely that he experienced any real friendship or affection. Although he lacks the words to express it, Kiffo is clearly moved by her gestures of kindness and compassion. Even when Calma is ridiculed by the entire school for saying that she loves Miss Payne, Kiffo stands by her: “It didn’t matter to him what other people thought. He accepted me. He gave me friendship and support.”
• During her eulogy for the troubled teen, Calma admits how much he meant to her: “I loved Kiffo. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love make up my sum.”
• ”He’s a real person. A friend, God help me.” p.17
• Calma speaks up against The Pitbull despite getting in trouble, p.30.
• “Whatever Kiffo was up to, I was going to be a part of it as well. We were friends.” p.43
• ”I’m trying to protect you.” p. 47.
• Calma says she loves Miss Payne because she’s loyal to her good friend, p.59.
• Calma is being threatened by a bully, Kiffo defends her, p.108.
• Calma lets Kiffo copy from her during a test, p.129.
• Calma’s father has left them and Kiffo comforts her, p.208.
• ”It didn’t matter to him what other people thought. He accepted me. He gave me friendship and support.” p.230
• ”I loved Kiffo. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love make up my sum.” p.230
• ”…the best mate anyone could have.” p. 257.
• ”She’s never talked to me like I’m dumb. I like her, like her loads. I trust her like I don’t trust no one else.” p.257
• ”I am not about to let a mate get himself in all sorts of strife without me there to help out.”
Fairness is another theme that runs through The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull. Kiffo’s treatment of teachers is unfair. He chooses to bully them mercilessly and enjoys “the battle” of reducing his teachers to nervous wrecks. At the beginning of the novel, Calma describes what little regard he has for them: “For him, a teacher…had no rights at all.” He sees it as his duty to “give them a hard time”.
Similarly, the teachers seem to have little tolerance for Kiffo. Out of frustration, they respond to his behaviour by treating him unfairly: “All the time I knew him…he was told that he was stupid. Stupid because he didn’t know what a metaphor was. Stupid because he couln’t see why it was important to know. And if you tell someone they’re stupid enough times, they will believe you. And Kiffo did believe it.” During the eulogy for Kiffo, Calma explains that the teachers “hated him” because of his “vile behaviour”.
At the end of the novel, Calma reveals that one of the things she learned from Kiffo was that it’s unfair to judge people by appearances: “And that’s what I learned from Kiffo. That underneath we are all pretty much the same, that we shouldn’t judge by appearances, as he was judged his entire life.”
• “But if I’ve learned one thing over the last month or so, it’s that judgements are very dangerous things.” p.3
• “Kiffo suffered the most. A lesson didn’t go by without her tormenting him in one way or another.” p.45
• “But he didn’t do anything. She told him that he was a loathsome sore on the backside of humanity… that he was nothing, and he took it.” p. 46
• “And that’s what I learned from Kiffo. That underneath we are all pretty much the same, that we shouldn’t judge by appearances, as he was judged his entire life.”
Kiffo’s impoverished upbringing is another reason Jonsberg gives for his behaviour. Early in the book, Calma notes that he doesn’t live in the “type of neighbourhood that you tended to go into if you could avoid it.” Given that he lives in such a violent neighbourhood, it’s easy to understand why he’s so violent and aggressive towards others. He lives in a house that reeks of “old socks, sweat, tobacco and despair” that she considers evidence of his “bleak existence”. During the novel, when Kiffo and Calma visit one of Kiffo’s friends, she describes the experience as “unpleasant and traumatic”. Growing up in poverty – in a world where violence, aggression, alcohol and drug abuse are an everyday part of life – is one of the reasons that Kiffo is so unstable and dysfunctional.
Although Calma’s family is better off than Kiffo’s, her mother still works several jobs to make ends meet and hardly has any time to spend with her daughter: “The way I see it, earning your way was all well and good, but there were other important things as well. Like having a daughter who you had time to talk to, or a mother who was around a little bit.”
• “I hardly ever see you…Give me less stuff and more time.” p.162
• “Where I come from I come from, we don’t make no difference between punching a woman or a bloke…you’d better shut up.” p.191
• “The tears were, finally, for Kiffo. For the life he had led and the life denied now forever. More than anything else, for the cold, hard, implacable waste of it all.” pp.239-240
Family is another important issue explored in The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull. There are two dysfunctional families at the heart of the novel. Kiffo and his father have an abusive and tumultuous relationship. Calma is upset that his family life is “loveless and full of casual cruelty.” At the end of the novel, she shares these concerns in her eulogy for the troubled teen, attributing his behaviour to the abuse inflicted by his father whose beatings caused “bruises he did his best to conceal.” During the eulogy, she also explains that his abusive father taught him some of his “worst characteristics.” Earlier in the novel, when The Pitbull chides him for performing poorly on a test, Calma points out that his family doesn’t encourage “academic success” in anything apart form “excessive drinking”. Jonsberg gives us a brief glimpse of Kiffo’s tumultuous life when Calma overhears an abusive argument with his father. At the age of seventeen, Kiffo’s older brother dies of a heroin overdoes, another reflection of the unstable family he comes from. Although his brother was a heroin addict, Kiffo loved him and received the sort of care and affection he never got from his father. When she visits his house, Calma notices a photograph of his brother on the wall: “The glass of the photograph gleamed. There was not a mark on it, or on the frame, which had obviously been polished recently. It was a small oasis of cleanliness against the stained backdrop of the wall.” This poignant description shows how much Kiffo loved his brother and how important that stable, loving relationship was to him.
• “My relationship with my mother hadn’t exactly been ideal before, but now it seemed torn beyond repair.” p.183
In The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull by Barry Jonsberg, Jaryd ‘Kiffo’ Kiffing is a lout and a troublemaker who has a “hatred of authority figures” and a “tendency towards mindless violence”. At the beginning of the novel, he taunts one of his teachers to the point of nervous breakdown and vows to break into Miss Payne’s house and destroy “everything the bitch owns.”
In the novel, narrator Calma Harrison is deeply troubled by Kiffo’s violent and cruel upbringing. She is upset that his life is “loveless and full of casual cruelty.” At the end of the novel, she shares these concerns in her eulogy for the troubled teen, attributing his behaviour to the abuse inflicted by his father whose beatings caused “bruises he did his best to conceal.” During the eulogy, she also explains that his abusive father taught him some of his “worst characteristics.” Earlier in the novel, when The Pitbull chides him for performing poorly on a test, Calma points out that his family doesn’t encourage “academic success” in anything apart form “excessive drinking”. Jonsberg gives us a brief glimpse of Kiffo’s tumultuous life when Calma overhears an abusive argument with his father. At the age of seventeen, Kiffo’s older brother dies of a heroin overdoes, another reflection of the unstable family he comes from. It is quite clear that Kiffo’s violent and abusive upbringing is, in part, the reason for his aggressive and dysfunctional behaviour.
At school, the one place where he should feel a sense of belonging, Kiffo experienced a “different kind of violence”. During her eulogy, Calma explains that school was “breaking his spirit”. The work that he receives is “grossly unfair” and he is given a hard time by his teachers, which only encourages his “vile” behaviour. Physically abused at home and living in a neighbourhood where violence is commonplace, Kiffo’s sense of worth continues to be eroded at school. As Calma explains during the eulogy: “…if you tell someone they’re stupid enough times, they will believe you. And Kiffo did believe it.” Kiffo could be a “real bastard” and this behaviour means that his teachers are unable to help him escape the violence and poverty in his life. School, the one place where “abused kids should be able to find support and understanding”, only ends up alienating Kiffo and magnifying the violent and aggressive behaviour he learnt at home.
• Kiffo decides to get revenge by trashing Miss Payne’s house, p.42.
• “Kiffo could be a real bastard” p.45.
• “I’ve spent my whole life deal thing with people who think I’m a step below a cockroach. Do I let that worry me? Hell, I am what I am.” I don’t look for people’s approval and you shouldn’t neither.” p.84
• “…there are just some things you can’t talk to Kiffo about. Some things I’m not allowed to visit. Not properly.” p.183
• “How could he have let it happen? It felt fragile, this business of living.” p.219
• “he actually impoverished their lives” p.226
• “not exactly a saint” p. 227
• “The truth about Kiffo…it’s a difficult one.” p. 228
• “I do know that a lot of the anger that Kiffo carried around with him, the hatred of authority figures, his tendency towards mindless violence, had to have their roots in your treatment of him.” p.228.
• “school was breaking his spirit” p.229
• “If you tell someone they’re stupid enough times, they will believe you.” And Kiffo did believe it.” p.229
• “absolutely vile in class” p.229.
• “I knew what it must be like to inhabit Kiffo’s world – a world where everyone judges you and finds you wanting.” p.230.
Calma is an intelligent and has the potential to be a high achieving student. At the beginning of the novel, we’re given an insight into her personality through Ms Brinkin’s report: “Calma is an exceptionally talented student of English. Unfortunately, she seems determined to waste her considerable ability.” Calma’s witty narration and her keen sense of humour is indicative of her intelligence. Calma is also sensitive and compassionate. She offers friendship and support to Kiffo when everyone else ignores him.