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 remains everywhere in evidence, his powers of invention become hyperactive, so to speak. Characters and scenes are multiplied to the point where the reader begins to feel suffocated, and nothing is allowed to stay in place long enough to have much impact.
Carey’s second novel, Illywacker (1985), is even more distracted than Bliss—problems exacerbated by the book’s six-hundred-page length. Its narrator, Herbert Badgery, is one hundred and thirty-nine years old. An inveterate liar and teller of tall tales, he has been a wanderer, a con man, a car salesman, a pioneer aviator, and a bigamist. Ranging in time from 1917 to roughly the present, Illywacker incorporates a considerable amount of modern Australian history and is packed with nearly every variety of Australian life—the shearers and squatters and diggers, the Irish, the Chinese, and the Jews, as well as fauna, including birds, marsupials, and a giant three-legged monitor lizard, or “dragon.” As with Bliss, there are many good scenes and much vigorous writing, which the reader hardly has time to savor before being rushed on to something else equally vivid or fantastic. Although picaresque in its intentions, Illywacker lacks the kind of consistently imagined anti-hero—whether adventurer, waif, thief, or soldier of fortune—which picaresque novels from Gil Blas to Roderick Random to The Confessions of Felix Krull have relied on to impose a semblance of unity on a highly episodic structure. For considerable stretches of the novel, Herbert Badgery is absent altogether, and the author’s interest seems diverted into many different channels, like a river lost in its delta. One finishes the novel with an impression of abundant talent prodigally wasted.
With Oscar and Lucinda Peter Carey at last produced the coherent narrative that was absent in the two earlier works. A long historical novel set in mid-Victorian England and Australia, and teeming with characters and scenes and an abundance of historical details, Oscar and Lucinda might seem to invite the sprawl and antiquarian excess characteristic of the genre. In fact, the book moves steadily along, never once veering from the main story. Carey not only invents two distinctive eccentrics but involves them so intensely in the events of the story that the reader follows their headlong course with mounting excitement and apprehension. Oscar, a young Anglican clergyman with dead white skin, red hair, a chicken neck and spindly frame, is one of nature’s victims, a hapless misfit and an ignorant prude in sexual matters: he is shown also, believably, to be a compulsive gambler, an ardent Christian, an agonized lover, and a man who, at the lowest point of his degradation, is capable of splitting the skull of his tormentor with an axe. Lucinda, the teen-age Australian heiress who impulsively invests her inheritance in a glass-works, has eyes that were “gateways to a fierce and lively intelligence. They were like young creatures who had lost their shells, not yet able to defend themselves.” She, too, is a gambler, addicted to poker; willful and courageous, she defies the conventions of her society and is more than willing to pay the price.
Beginning with Oscar’s childhood in rural Devon, Carey devotes alternating sections of the novel to each of his two characters, bringing them together in Sydney and launching them on a joint enterprise that fully engages their oddities and their idealistic naiveté. The goal he devises for them is one worthy of the age of Joseph Paxton and the Crystal Palace: to prefabricate a church made of glass and to transport it overland in crates to a remote station in the Outback. Once the goal is in prospect, the action undergoes a kind of epic heightening, though the events of the expedition itself are almost unbearable in their sordidness and brutality. Carey understands very well the uses of sustained suspense and last-minute surprise. In scenes involving Oscar’s unintended fathering of an heir and his own death by drowning, he brings this luminous novel to a conclusion so ironic as to cheat our sentimental expectations while dazzling us with its virtuosity—and rightness.
“Luminous” is not a term easily applied to The Tax Inspector. The story concerns four increasingly catastrophic days in the life of the Catchprices, a radically “dysfunctional” family whose members own a General Motors dealership in Franklin, a once independent town that has now been absorbed into greater Sydney. The family members live above, behind, and, in one case, below the various components—showroom, workshop, spare-parts department, and lube bay—of Catchprice Motors.
Time-switched neon lights lay at their centre. The odours of sump oil and gasoline sometimes penetrated as far as their linen closets. They were in debt to the General Motors Acceptance Corporation for $567,000.
With loving and often pitiless detail, Carey animates his little collection of losers and freaks. The dominant figure among them is the eighty-six-year-old Frieda Catchprice. Half-senile but still spirited, she is struggling to maintain her precarious hold over her crumbling domain.
She liked to smoke Salem cigarettes. When she put one in her mouth, her lower lip stretched out towards it like a horse will put out its lip towards a lump of sugar. She was not especially self-critical, but she knew how she looked when she did this—an old tough thing. She was not a tough thing. She made jokes about her leaking roof but she was frightened there was no money to fix it.
For many years she has been carrying a salami-shaped stick of nitroglycerine and fuses in her handbag; the reader knows, of course, that, like the pistol in the Chekhov play, it will have to go off before the novel ends.
The rest of the family consists of Granny’s forty-five-year-old daughter, Cathy, who dresses as a cowgirl and would love to escape both the dealership and her mother’s clutches in order to sing with a rock band; Cathy’s sleazy husband, Howie, who has “a pencil-line moustache, a ducktail, and a secret rash which stopped in a clean line at his collar and the cuffs of his shirt. He had the ducktail because he was a Rock-a-Billy throwback…”; Cathy’s brother Mort, a wide and burly man with “kissy” lips, who exudes an air of seedy depression and guilt; and Mort’s two sons, Johnny (known as Vishnabarnu—“Vish”—since he joined the Hare Krishnas) and Benny, who at sixteen is by far the strangest of the lot. Another Catchprice remains offstage until late in the novel—he is Jack, Granny’s favorite son, who has escaped from the falling House of Catchprice to become a successful realestate developer in Sydney.
Cathy has just fired Benny from his job in the spare-parts department. Benny is an unprepossessing, unclean youth in a cut-out Judas Priest T-shirt, with dark fuzz on his lip, a Marlboro in his mouth, and a Walkman on his head. Attention is drawn to his “bright blue cat’s eyes full of things he could not tell you.”
Those eyes were like gas jets in a rust-flaked pipe. They informed everything you felt about him, that he might, at any second, be ringed with heat—a peacock, something creepy.
Two days later, he is transformed. His hair has been dyed “pure or poisonous” white and “swept upwards with clear sculpted brush strokes, like atrophied angel wings.” His body, treated with wax, is now completely hairless, and, as we learn a little later, he has had an angel’s wing tatooed on his back, running over his shoulder all the way from his collarbone to his buttocks. As a result of a course in “self-actualization” that he is taking, the boy now sees himself as a figure of enormous power, a fallen angel.
At once pathetic and dangerous, Benny lives in a cellar under the motor works. Carey’s description is characteristic of the heightened detail that he gives his settings:
“Welcome to the Bunker,” Benny said.
It was worse than anything Vish could have imagined. The air was as thick as a laundry. The concrete floor was half an inch deep in water. It was criss-crossed with planks supported by broken housebricks. A brown-striped couch stood against one end, its legs on bricks. The bricks were wrapped in green plastic garbage bags. Electric flex was everywhere, wrapped in Glad Wrap and bits of plastic with torn ends like rag…. Two electric radiators stood on a chipped green chest of drawers, facing not into the room but towards the walls where you could see the red glow of two bars reflected in what Vish, at first, thought was wet floral wallpaper. It was not wallpaper. It was handwriting, red, blue, green, black, webs of it, layer on layer. In the corner…was a white fibreglass object, like a melted surfboard in the shape of a shallow “n.”
The “melted surfboard” is, we learn, a sexual contraption rigged with straps designed to hold a victim motionless for whatever purposes the boy has in mind.
Such is the Australian gothic world in which Maria Takis, a healthy, good-hearted young woman, arrives to audit the books of Catchprice Motors. Maria is a Greek immigrant who works for the Australian Taxation Office and is eight months pregnant by a man who cannot marry her. Her arrival interrupts the proceedings Cathy has set in motion to commit Granny Catchprice to a nursing home. A friendship soon develops between Maria and the old woman, and Maria determines not only to save Granny from the nursing home but to have the audit of the obviously vulnerable Catchprice Motors called off. At the novel’s conclusion Maria, who has meanwhile fallen in love with Jack (the only Catchprice with a future), is subjected to a terrifying ordeal in Benny’s cellar. In what may be a remote allusion to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” this scene occurs at the very moment when, thanks to Granny Catchprice’s nitroglycerine, the walls of Catchprice Motors come literally tumbling down.
Carey has created a fairly elaborate structure that can, without losing coherence, accommodate all sorts of bizarre juxtapositions, excursions into family history, and sudden shifts in location (including Greece in one extended flashback). The seemingly disparate parts are carefully interrelated; they do not fly off centrifugally as they tend to do in Illywacker. Some reviewers have been disconcerted, even offended, by the shifting tone of The Tax Inspector—the wild leaps between the comic, the sensationally perverse, the sentimental (as in Maria and Jack’s love affair), and the horrific. But these juxtapositions and disparities seem entirely justified in the updated gothic atmosphere Carey has created.
It should also be pointed out that the hard, brilliant surface of Carey’s prose and the unsparing objectivity with which he records the behavior of the Catchprices by no means reflects a lack of sympathy for them. As in the case of Mary Shelley’s monster, we are exposed to the yearnings and sorrows of misbegotten or hopelessly thwarted characters. We learn that Granny Catchprice as a young woman had wanted to own a flower farm, but instead after her marriage she had to help run a chicken farm and then a car dealership, both of which she hated. The explosives she carries were once intended to blow up the tree stumps on the acreage to be cleared for growing flowers.
Benny longs to be beautiful and admired. When his father tells him, after his “transformation,” that he looks like a “poof,” Benny feels like crying.
He wanted to tie his father up and pour water over his face until he said he was sorry. He felt like a snail with its shell taken off. He was pink and slimy and glistening. Even the air hurt him. He felt like dying. It was not just his father. It was everything. He could feel depression come down on him like mould, like bad milk, like the damp twisted dirty sheets in the cellar. He wanted to go to the cellar and lock the door.
We learn a little later that Benny has been sexually molested by his father since the age of three and that both Mort and Cathy in turn had been similarly molested by their father. In a subsequent scene, graphically described, Benny scornfully seduces his father, who has been aroused by the hairlessness of his son’s body. To know all is by no means to pardon all, but at least some pathos has been introduced into this bizarre mix, a curious one that has something in common with the lyrical “decadence” of a novel like Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden.
Still another image for the effect produced by The Tax Inspector can be found in the novel itself. At an elegant party in Sydney to which Jack takes Maria, the conversation turns to a de Kooning painting for which one of the dinner guests has just paid $23 million. Maria is glad to hear that the painting in question is not one of de Kooning’s “women.” ” ‘He’s such an extraordinary painter,’ she said…. ‘I love his work, but the women always frighten me.’ ” A moment later she adds, ” ‘He’s so lyrical and beautiful…. I mean, it’s like I’m giving my heart to him and then I walk into the next room and feel I’m in the power of a serial killer.’ “
Peter Carey’s prose can hold the ugly, the frightening, and the beautiful in uncanny suspension. It is this gift, among others, that makes him such a strong and remarkable writer.
June 25, 1992