House of Cards

The Tax Inspector

by Peter Carey
Knopf, 279 pp., $21.00

The Australian writer Peter Carey is little known in the US, although for the last few years he has been living in New York and teaching at New York University. His lack of following is as, mystifying as it is regrettable, since his novels contain scenes so powerfully visualized and characters so various in their eccentricity, willfulness, goodness, and depravity that it is hard not to mention Dickens or Balzac when one is writing about them. Carey has a wide readership in both his native Australia and in Britain, where his third novel, Oscar and Lucinda, won the Booker Prize in 1988. American readers are not likely to be put off by Carey’s sexual frankness (and occasional scurrility) or by his taste for sudden violence. Can it be that they find something boring in reading about Australia, where (they may think) banal vestiges of a British colonial heritage coexist with a brainless Californian hedonism? Nothing could be further from the grotesque yet eerily familiar world of Carey’s novel.

Indeed, it has taken Carey some time to find the fictional form to contain his peculiarly turbulent imagination. His first novel, Bliss (1981), begins with a wonderfully hallucinatory account of the out-of-body experience of un homme moyen sensuel—a “Good Bloke” named Harry Joy, who has just had a heart attack and is lying on the green grass of his suburban lawn, a cigarette smoldering between his fingers. In the nine minutes that elapse before he can be revived by the doctors and ambulance crew, Harry is touched by ecstasy.

He found he could slide between the spaces in the air itself. He was stroked by something akin to trees, cool, green, leafy. His nostrils were assailed with the smell of things growing and dying, a sweet fecund smell like the valleys of rain forests. It occurred to him that he had died and should therefore be frightened.

It was only later that he felt any wish to return to his body, when he discovered that there were many different worlds…and that if he might taste bliss he would not be immune to terror. He touched walls like membranes, which shivered with pain, and a sound, as insistent as a pneumatic drill, promised meaningless tortures as terrible as the Christian stories of his childhood.

He recognized the worlds of pleasure and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell.

He did not wish to die. For a moment panic assailed him and he crashed around like a bird surrounded by panes of glass.

After this experience, Harry concludes that the life he has been leading, and the life to which he returns after an open heart operation, is really Hell. There is much to confirm this conclusion. Harry’s bitchy wife is unfaithful, his son deals drugs, his daughter performs oral sex on her brother, and his advertising clients manufacture carcinogenic products. Unfortunately the novel degenerates and turns shapeless. While Carey’s gift for fresh and arresting imagery …

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