Sunday, 17 June 2018

A Long Way from Home

Many years ago, when I was a mere intellectual slip of a thing, I wrote an Honours thesis on Peter Carey’s two major novels at the time: Illywhacker (1985) and Oscar and Lucinda (1988). Given that and the fact that I have read all thirteen of Carey’s novels, writing about A Long Way from Home (2017) should be – one would think – a walk in the park. However, I have avoided this task. Perhaps I know too much, or ought to? In such circumstances, one fears to open one’s mouth. The way to overcome this is to write the first thing that comes to mind and avoid mentioning your hesitancy. Or use a Carey technique and write in two voices to construct a complex, ironic view of the subject at hand.

The first voice is Irene Bobs, married to Titch, loyal to her husband despite – or perhaps because of -- the localized version of glamour and celebrity he represents. Titch is a Ford salesman, and the son of a once-famous aviator, ‘Dangerous Dan’, who is a bully and a shit-stirrer. Irene is a talented driver in the patriarchal days of the 1950s when women should be in the house, or behind the till, but certainly not behind the wheel. She’s a tough nut, however, and Carey writes feisty women well, with an understanding beyond his gender.

The second voice is their neighbor, a lanky “German” Willie Bachhuber, who on the surface is another Carey type: a misfit male who thinks too much in a land where men ought to just act. His gift – there is usually a redeeming feature to these intellectuals – is a map-reading ability that is second to none, so that he can see around bends as the car he and the Bobs drive in the Redex Trials speeds towards what they hope will be a startling victory.

Any Carey reader worth his salt will have the disposition to sympathize with a failed school teacher and temporary but ripped-off national radio quiz champion. Just what the two women in his life see in Willie is a little harder to fathom. The mysterious Sebastian of the Map Library department of the State Library of Victoria, at least knows of Bachhuber’s gifts. In any case, the novel at first runs along familiar lines when it comes to its representation of a flawed male character waiting for redemption in the hands of various women who might understand him, or betray him, or both. Things get more interesting, and new, once the story of the road race takes us into the outback where Willie Bachhuber’s white identity comes unstuck, and with and through him, the reader speeds headlong into the White Australia Policy and racism it is easy to ignore in the more enlightened parts of the city and national consciousness.

From here, the change of gears is startling; a third voice is Bachhuber’s son, years after the race, tracking down the ‘ark’ of Bachhuber’s cassette tapes and ‘mud books’ of outside-of-the-academy anthropology of an indigenous Australian people. The last lines of the novel can be quoted without giving the game away: ‘What may seem to be the signs of madness might be understood by someone familiar with alchemical literature as an encryption whose function is to insist that the mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak’ (p.357).

Perhaps here is a clue about my hesitancy to write about this book I have not yet fully understood.