The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey (1991) 279 p.
Peter Carey is one of those authors whose personal life seeps into their writing in interesting, identifiable ways. His years working for an advertising agency and then living on a hippie commune in Queensland are very evident in Bliss, and the fact that his parents owned a car dealership in a small town can be seen in Illywhacker, where Herbert Badgery spends much of his time in the 1920s selling Fords to farmers. It’s even more relevant in The Tax Inspector, which revolves around the Catchprice family and their failing auto dealership in the outer suburbs of Sydney in the early 1990s.
It’s tempting to say that Peter Carey is a hit or miss author depending on whether he’s writing historical fiction or not; I loved Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, all of which are historical novels, but didn’t like Bliss and was indifferent to The Tax Inspector. But I feel like that must be a coincidence, because there’s something lacking from the writing which has nothing to do with the era in which it’s set. The Tax Inspector rambles along a series of unlikely events and unbelievable characters in the same way that an early Michael Chabon or Jonathon Lethem novel might, and no single passage of prose holds the same sticking power as Ned Kelly and his changeling host in True History of the Kelly Gang, or the Aboriginal tribe discovering and keeping Lucinda’s shards of glass in the aftermath of a massacre in Oscar and Lucinda. It doesn’t feel like it amounts to something worthwhile in the same way that even one of his middling novels like Jack Maggs does.
The Tax Inspector is not a bad novel but not a great one either. If I didn’t know any better – if you gave me his books and asked me to arrange them in chronological order – I’d say The Tax Inspector feels much more like a sophomore novel Carey might have written after Bliss, rather than a follow-up to the literary powerhouses that actually precede it.