Phattbookia Stupenda

Nicholas Spice

  • Illywhacker by Peter Carey
    Faber, 600 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 571 13207 3

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.

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