With the publication of his latest novel, Illywhacker, the author of The Fat Man in History has secured himself a prominent place in the history of the fat book. If you’re not normally a fat book reader, you mustn’t be outfaced by the fatness of Illywhacker, nor by the price, which is hardly a fat book price, especially when the fat book is as comely as this one. Indeed, all the signs are that this is a book the publishers believe in. They’ve put their production values where their blurb is, printing the book on paper likely to outlast the century, and binding it so that you can prop it open on the breakfast table without breaking the spine or knocking over the lemon curd. They must think they’ll sell a lot. They’re right, and their salesmen won’t need to be illywhackers.
While some fat books take up the space of several thin ones, spreading themselves over more than their fair share of the available mental furniture, threatening breakages, Illywhacker contrives to seem slim. Not that its content is thin, but that its stories are so splendidly tall, making the fatness proportionate and proving again that longueurs have less to do with length than with pace, which Peter Carey controls like a master, thwacking his prose along with all the exuberant free energy of a boy thwacking a hoop with a stick.
To Herbert Badgery – funny man, raconteur and compère extraordinary of Illywhacker – the notion that a book might seem slimmer than it is, would be commonplace, that his own book should practise such a trick, inevitable. Sleight of being, or the ability to appear other than one is, is Herbert’s natural gift, although the specific techniques of looking bigger and smaller, as well as how to give an impression of great wealth by shining your shoes, and how to modify accents and modulate walks, were taught him back in 1896, when he was ten, by Goon Tse Ying, the Melbourne Chinaman who dragged him (‘half wild, cunning as a shit-house rat’) from his urchin’s lair ‘amidst the crates and spoiled vegetables at the back of the Eastern Market’. Illywhacker is Herbert Badgery’s account of how he applied these and other arts of seeming to the tricky business of life, managing by their lights to survive to 139 and become the chief attraction of the ‘Best Pet Shop in the World’, a giant menagerie of Australiana, situated in Sydney, run by his grandson, but owned by the Mitsubishi Company of Japan.
If Herbert really is 139, then he is speaking to us from the year 2025. This contributes to our sense of him as partly a mythical being, but otherwise, except at the end of Illywhacker, where the idea of a vague and worrying future helps to lift the story into the symbolic, the exorbitance of Herbert’s age plays little part in the book. The story proper begins in 1919, when Herbert is 33. It is set in Melbourne and Sydney and their surrounding small towns, places like Bacchus Marsh (Carey’s own home town), Jeparit, Ballarat and Geelong.
Forced by a buggered magneto to land his Morris Farman at the Balliang East brass tap, Herbert Badgery finds himself face to face with the beautiful Phoebe McGrath, who just happens to be picnicking there with her parents, Molly and Jack. Book One of Illywhacker tells of how Herbert develops this encounter into a flourishing epoch of his life, seducing Phoebe, deluding Jack and almost upsetting the delicate balance of Molly McGrath’s mind. Phoebe and Herbert get married (although Herbert is already married) and set up ‘house’ (part Methodist hall, part aeroplane, part aviary) on the Maribyrnong mudflats by the side of the Footscray abattoirs. For a time, all seems to go well for Herbert, but after a short period of rickety bliss, Phoebe runs off with Horace the epileptic poet, abandoning Herbert with their two children, Charles and Sonia.
Book Two moves forward to 1931. For seven years, Herbert has been bumming about Victoria, living with his kids in the back of a 1924 Dodge tourer, ‘writing bad cheques ... running raffles in pubs, buying stolen petrol, ransacking local tips for useful building materials’. A chance encounter with Leah Goldstein changes all that. Leah is a medical student, turned dancer: ‘I do the Emu Dance, the Fan Dance, the Snake Dance, the Dance of the Seven Veils.’ She has abandoned her studies to support her husband Izzie Kaletsky and his parents, Lenny and Rosa, who have fallen on hard times since their scrap metal business went bust. Leah and Herbert join forces and form Badgery & Goldstein (Theatricals), ‘wandering through the 1930s like flies on the face of a great painting’. This is the most rewarding period of Herbert’s life, but it ends, as so often for Herbert, in abandonment. Leah goes back to Izzie, whose legs get sliced off by a train. Sonia, meanwhile, has vanished – probably down a disused mine shaft. By now it’s 1937, and Herbert is at an all time low. He discovers that Goon Tse Ying is still alive and visits him. Provoked by Goon’s denial of the magic he had once taught him, Herbert steals Goon’s secret book, The Book of Dragons, ripping off Goon’s finger in the scuffle.
With Herbert tucked away for ten years in Rankin Downs gaol, Book Three of Illywhacker turns our attention to Charles, Herbert’s lovable, ugly, unsophisticated son. The scene opens on Les and Marjorie Chaffey’s farm. Les is out the back mending his tractor, and Marjorie is squatting on the veranda with her broom. Into the picture motors 17-year-old Charles on his 1927 H-series AJS motor-cycle. Charles is eking out an existence as ‘Snake Boy Badgery’ in the great Victoria mouse plague, exchanging the services of his mouse-eating snakes for a square meal and a bed. He only plans to spend a night at the Chaffeys, but ends up staying for weeks, because Les Chaffey has dismantled his AJS and won’t put it back together again. It’s while he’s marooned on Chaffey’s farm that Charles falls in love with Emma Underhill, a schoolteacher in Jeparit, whom he gallantly rescues from the clutches of a giant lizard, a Gould’s Monitor, which has mistaken her for a tree and is sitting on her head. Charles and Emma set up a pet shop in Sydney, taking the goanna with them. The business prospers and all goes well, until the fated afternoon when Emma thinks that Charles has left her to enlist for the war, and the goanna, running free, has a leg bitten off by a terrier. Emma, traumatised, retreats into the goanna’s cage, and nothing is ever quite the same again. With the reappearance of Herbert on the scene, the situation goes into a steep and sinister decline, and Illywhacker draws to its weird and nightmarish close.
Funny men, like books, come in two sizes: fat and thin. Illywhacker is a fat book, but Herbert Badgery is a thin funny man: agile, alert, beady-eyed and shifty, dry but slippery – a snake. ‘I was an old python with his opaque skin now shed, his blindness gone, once again splendid and supple, seeing the world in all its terrifying colours.’ Sharp character and charmer, ruffian and trickster, scoundrel and con man, lounge lizard, quandong, ripperty man, shark – in the course of the book, Herbert has many names. To himself he is a liar. To Leah Goldstein he is an illywhacker. And what is an illywhacker? It is, she explains, a ‘Spieler ... Eelerspee. It’s like pig Latin. Spieler is ieler-spe and iely-whacker. Illywhacker. See?’
Of the two definitions, Leah’s is the more accurate, because it incorporates the element of play. Herbert’s insistence on bundling the total effects of his personality into the one capacious conceptual hold-all, ‘lie’, is typical of his animus against himself, but it is misleading. For lies are mean and diminishing things, and Herbert is generous and an augmenter. Balancing his compulsive dishonesty is an equally compulsive creativity. Herbert the bullshitter, the salesman of T Model Fords, is also Herbert the builder who can make houses out of the wooden crates they are shipped in. The same genius animates both personae, a genius for invention, the genius of a hessian bag:
It is my belief that there are few things in this world more useful than a hessian bag, and no matter what part of my story I wish to reflect on I find that a hessian bag, or the lack of one, assumes some importance. They soften the edge of a hard bench, can be split open to line a wall, can provide a blanket for a cold night, a safe container for a snake, a rabbit or a duck. They are useful when beheading hens or to place under car tyres in sandy soil. You can stuff them full of kapok to make a decent cushion and there is nothing better to carry frogs in.
Making the most of scarce resources, exploiting the potential of every encounter, turning the least promising situation to good account – such is the principle of the hessian bag, and for Herbert and Leah telling lies is just a way of applying the principle, a strategy for survival, and a source of sustenance and comfort when conditions are poor and the going is not good. Thus, when Herbert is in gaol and Leah is caged by a dismal existence looking after the Kaletskys – Izzie maimed and bitter, Rosa dying of cancer (‘suffering that filthy rot that left her all eaten out inside, as light and fragile as a pine long infested with white ant’) – Leah saves her sanity through her imagination, filling volumes of letters to Herbert with a vision of things as they might have been:
Now she began to invent a life outside her walls, to send squares of sky to me (cobalt blue and saturated with life) to invent joy, to sustain it, and to write a hundred times about Silly Friends she must first manufacture. She arranged them on the mustard-yellow sand of Tamarama – indigos, crimsons, violet and viridian, people who were never born, walking on a beach she had stolen from 1923.
Lying to subsist, mind you, has nothing whatever to do with ‘subsistence lying’, which is simply saying anything that comes into your head rather than admit the truth. What Leah does to get through hard times has a nobility about it, and when Herbert outfaces the railway police by pretending to be tough, his lie is principled and heroic. By contrast, the subsistence lie, being a lie without heed to use and regardless of plausibility or potential, is altogether a low thing and ‘has no lasting value no matter how you look at it’. Herbert’s idiom when talking about lies, his favourite theme, reveals him as a dedicated professional, a purist and an aesthete – a moralist, no less, of mendacity. In Herbert’s view, if a lie is well constructed it deserves the respect of a great building, and a badly-built building is no better than a subsistence lie. Likewise, while a lie can have the beauty of a poem, poetry itself works with the resourcefulness of lies: ‘a poem can take any form, can be a sleight of hand, a magician’s trick, be built from string and paper, fish or animals, bricks and wire.’ Thrift, magic and cunning are, appropriately, the creative forces that govern Herbert Badgery ‘s own great poem, Illywhacker, in which the principle of the hessian bag and the energies for life of the lie are definitively exemplified and embodied.
The lie is a wonderful narrative instrument and a powerful generator of funny stories. It makes the distinction between art and reality unnecessary. Whether in a book or in life, a lie is a master key to adventure, unlocking doors to the right and the left of the straight, the schematic and the narrow. Telling a lie is the surest way to turn your life into a story. But, as the Germans are too fond of saying, ‘Lügen haben kurze Beine’ – lies have short legs, and this is what makes them such good generators of comic material. When a master liar like Herbert Badgery lets loose a lie, he is able to sustain its running time far beyond its natural capabilities. Once Herbert has told Phoebe that the deadly king brown snake he has just picked up is his pet, he is committed to a ludicrous sequence of risks and responsibilities. The working out of these consequences, interwoven with the consequences of the parallel lie that he is involved in developing the prototype of the Australian aeroplane, generates much of the first book of Illywhacker. The process is enthralling because it appears to take place on the page, as though the book were being invented as it went along. It is impossible to convey in a review the cumulative brilliance and accelerating hilarity of Herbert Badgery’s prose. He plays the language like Hardy’s rustic virtuoso, ‘bowing it higher and higher’, or like a great jazz improviser, always just ahead of the pulse and galvanising boredom with astonishing syncopations.
If I have given the impression that Illywhacker is a rollicking, affirmative sort of book, then it is time I corrected the mistake. Energy, play, life, extravagance, invention are all aspects of Peter Carey’s art, and they make Illywhacker, in one sense, a refreshing and invigorating entertainment. But the positive forces of the book are expended in the elaboration of a dark, disturbing and unhappy vision. Illywhacker is a distasteful book. It gets under the skin. The further one is drawn into it, the more one longs to shake free. The origins of this malaise sit deep in Herbert Badgery. Herbert tells lies to cheer people up, but he is himself far from a cheerful person. Like all good funny men, he lacks a sense of humour. He finds little in life to recommend, and even less in life as it is lived in Australia. Wherever he looks he sees lies, and Australia is the biggest lie of all: the people pretending to be English or American, the buildings pretending to be European, and a history based upon the lie ‘that the continent, at the time of the first settlement, was said to be occupied but not cultivated’ – justifying the eviction of the aborigines.
Herbert’s acute sensitivity to the shams and delusions of what he calls ‘this lonely rotten world’ is one of the chief spurs to his own dishonesty. He lies to harmonise with creation, to defeat lies with lies, to replace one ugly sham with a less ugly sham. His iconoclasm is radical, his refusal to compromise ascetic. At heart, he is a fanatic truth-teller. This expresses itself in open scorn for the pretensions he finds around him, but it is everywhere implicit in his idiom, in his unflagging insistence on naming every aspect of things as they are. Where most of us flinch from sticking our noses or soiling our hands, Herbert is at home. His imagination reaches out and embraces the insides of filthy pockets, the undersides of carpets, the contents of bathroom pedal bins, the basket of dirty underwear. No indignity is allowed to be suppressed: unwashed sheets and unmade beds, ties stained with luncheon gravy, fingernail-bitten hands, urine and vomit, tummy rumbles and globs of spittle, liquid shit and giant unflushable turds, bile and warts, farts and scaly skin. Herbert’s similes are invariably bathetic, keeping the general style low: ‘The storm was coming down like a boarding-house shower: water all round the hills on the edges and dry in the middle,’ ‘My frailty seemed to fall away like dandruff,’ ‘I had not abandoned my dream lightly, like a man who throws away a half-smoked cigarette outside the theatre.’
Against all the nastiness, cruelty, strangeness and pain, Illywhacker invokes one supremely healing value: kindness. ‘If kindness is not the point, what point is there?’ Jack McGrath’s plea is reformulated over and over again throughout the book. The tragedy for Herbert Badgery is that, never having had kindness as a child, he does not know how to attract kindness as an adult. ‘All I ever wanted was a fire and slippers. But the women never saw, or if they did, they looked the other way.’ The pattern of abandonment in his life is cruel. Each time it is repeated, it provokes a terrible anger. When Phoebe leaves:
I ran out to the birdcages and released them. I shooed them out, as if this magic might bring back my wife. I wrung the neck of a parrot that would not leave. Not just wrung its neck, but pulled its head off.
Herbert contends that no one allows him to be himself, that his lies and performances are forced upon him. But the real motivation of his lies is emotional deprivation, his lack of a mother, his lack of mothering. Herbert tells lies to hide his true feelings. They are his revenge upon a world that refuses to meet his needs, his instrument of power to control it. As strategies of omnipotence, Herbert’s lies grant him temporary satisfactions, but at the cost of a deep loneliness and a fear that he may in fact be an evil, unkind man.
The roots of Herbert Badgery’s personality are damaged, and it is this which ultimately limits the scope of Illywhacker. Herbert dominates the book. Even Charles Badgery is really a way of defining Herbert – a necessary antithesis. Wherever the narrative strays from these two characters to fill in the background, the spark in the writing fades, the energy flags. Peter Carey writes most truly in the voice of Herbert. But the very qualities that make Herbert such a strong and distinctive character also preclude his being taken as representative, whether of humanity in general or Australians in particular. There are other ways of looking at life and other ways of looking at Australia. In an extraordinary interpolation, Illywhacker acknowledges this limitation. While Herbert is in hospital suffering the after-effects of a stroke, Leah Goldstein finds the notebooks in which he has been writing the book. What distresses her about what she reads is not that Herbert has plagiarised her own writings, but that he has distorted what he has stolen, turning all the sweet things sour, or simply leaving them out. ‘And why have you been so unfair to us, to yourself most of all? ... You have treated us all badly, as if we were your creatures.’ It is as though Peter Carey were talking to himself.
In time (probably in a week or two), Illywhacker will be seized upon by the academic establishment in ‘English’ literature and subjected to intensely competitive manipulations. Like Tristram Shandy, it will become a Venus fly-trap for the buzzing PhDs. They will write of it as moral philosophy (invoking Sissela Bok), as a discourse upon Book Ten of the Republic, as a commentary on Le Neveu de Rameau and the Paradoxe sur le Comédien, as a brilliant experiment in textuality, as an instantly self-deconstructing text. ‘Am I a prisoner in the midst of a sign or am I a spider at its centre?’ asks Herbert innocently, pondering the position of his bedroom window in the middle of the neon lights that announce the best pet shop in the world. He won’t have to stay long for an answer.
Meanwhile the large numbers of people outside academia who will buy and enjoy Illywhacker will do so because Herbert Badgery is a great fictional character, but mainly, I think, because of his irresistible and addictive style. This in the end is where the quality of the book lies. And if I were to write a thesis on Illywhacker (perish the thought) I’d call it ‘Peter Carey: The Novelist as Swagman’, and I’d take this as my opening text:
He was a swagman who had let himself go, a swagman who had long ago given up trying to wash his shirt once a week in summer, a swagman whose natural affection for pieces of string and odd discarded rags had entered a virulent phase where it overwhelmed any of the conventional restraints placed on fashion and become a style of its own.