Illywhacker by Peter Carey (1985) 600 p.

Because I didn’t like Bliss, I skipped ahead to Peter Carey’s first Booker Prize winner, Oscar and Lucinda, which I found to be excellent. So I was pleasantly surprised to go back to Illywhacker, Carey’s second novel (and the first nominated for a Booker) to find that it was also an excellent work – a funny, tragic, picaresque epic.

Herbert Badgery, Illywhacker’s protagonist and omniscient narrator, begins the novel by announcing that he is “a hundred and thirty-nine years old… and a terrible liar.” The story begins in Victoria in 1919 when he is thirty-two years old and engine trouble forces him to land his plane in a country field, where he meets the picnicking McGrath family. This chance encounter leads to his friendship with Jack McGrath, with whom he plans to open an aeroplane factory, his romance with Jack’s teenage daughter Phoebe, and the subsequent deaths, births, weddings, adventures and trials that follow – and this is just in the first third of the novel.

After reading Oscar and Lucinda I compared Carey, or at least an aspect of his writing, to Terry Pratchett – a sort of wry, witty sense of human nature and a dry way of dropping random information to sum up encounters between two different people. For example, when a self-important woman attempts to convince a policeman of her importance:

“My father was a Colonel McInlay,” she told the sergeant who had successfully conspired to shoot a major in Ypres.

There’s an element of Carey’s style which also reminds me of Michael Chabon’s, particularly in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, though I can’t quite articulate why. A sort of omniscient third person perspective that expounds upon the characters’ thoughts and feelings and futures, without ever seeming overdone.

For all the comparisons, Carey undoubtedly has a unique writing style. I particularly like his knack for imbuing Australian place names with a sense of fabulousness, admiring their innate lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Bendigo, Jindabyne, Geelong, Terang. (Perhaps this is part of why I didn’t care for Bliss, which takes place in city suspiciously like Brisbane which nonetheless goes unnamed.) Illywhacker covers more of Australia than any of Carey’s other books, rambling across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and Herbert Badgery has an insight on everywhere:

I have heard people describe Bendigo as a country town. They mention it in the same breath as Shepparton or Ararat. These people have never been to Bendigo and don’t know what they’re talking about. The Town Hall is the equal of anything in Florence; the Law Courts would not look frumpish in Versailles. And if there are farmers in the streets, dark cafes with three courses for two and sixpence and, in Hayes Street, a Co-op dedicated to Norfield Wire Strainers and Cattle Drench, it does not alter the fact that Bendigo is a town of the Gold Age.

If Illywhacker has an underlying theme beneath its sprawling family saga, it’s the cultural cringe and the Australian sense of inferiority. At the beginning of the novel, a 32-year-old Badgery is determined to establish an Australian aviation industry; later, he becomes disillusioned with his job selling Ford cars, and rants against the Holden slogan, “Australia’s own car,” given Holden was owned by GM. When a guest at his wedding says “I could fancy I was sitting, at this very moment, in Paris,” Badgery says he was “so happy I could not find it in my heart to ask the old gentleman what was wrong with sitting in Melbourne.” He has nothing but contempt for the Australians who behave as Englishmen:

You would think Cocky Abbot a reasonable fellow until you met the son, and then you saw what was wrong with him. It was what happened in this country. The minute they began to make a quid they started to turn into Englishmen. Cocky Abbot was probably descended from some old cockney lag, who had arrived here talking flash language, a pickpocket, a bread-stealer, and now, a hundred years later his descendants were dressing like his gaolers and torturers, disowning the language, softening their vowels, greasing their way into the plummy speech of the men who had ordered their ancestors lashed until the flesh had been dragged in bleeding strips from their backs.

There are also elements of Carey’s light touch at magic realism – an adoptive Chinese father who teaches Badgery an invisibility trick, a priest who swears he once saw a fairy, a jar containing a severed finger which sometimes, to different people, contains completely different things. Badgery’s self-confessed liar status makes it difficult to tell what really happened and what’s just a shaggy dog story, but as Badgery warns on the first page: “My advice is to not waste your time with your red pen, to try to pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show.”

Illywhacker is a great, garrulous, tottering tower of a novel, which is much better than it has any right to be. Oscar and Lucinda is probably the better book, being quite a bit more tightly plotted, but both of them are brilliant: wonderfully written Australian adventures full of odd characters, magical landscapes and Peter Carey’s unique, beautiful prose. Illywhacker is a gem.

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