Australian Circles

Jonathan Coe

  • The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey
    Faber, 279 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 16297 5
  • The Second Bridegroom by Rodney Hall
    Faber, 214 pp, £13.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 571 16482 X

Both of these Australian novels describe circles. Carey, forsaking the confident historical sweep of Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker to focus once again on the horrors of modern suburbia, traces the vicious circles of a family history in which successive generations are debilitated by a legacy of abuse. Rodney Hall tells of a convict at large in New South Wales in 1838, caught up in larger, even more powerful cycles of captivity and exploitation, until he finds temporary sanctuary with an Aboriginal tribe and becomes ‘the very centre of their circle’. Both novels end with violence: but only Carey’s has the nervous optimism to suggest that this might provide a means, however damaging, of breaking loose from an imprisoning pattern.

The setting for most of his novel is Catchprice Motors, a terminally run-down used car business founded by Frieda Catchprice in the Forties but now resembling nothing more than a ‘badly tended family grave’. The Catchprices live in Franklin, New South Wales, which used to be a country town twenty miles from Sydney: since then Sydney has swollen out of recognition (it’s now the second biggest city in the world, after Calcutta), and suddenly Franklin finds itself only two miles along the F4 from the outermost suburbs. Responsibility for running the business rests mainly with Frieda’s daughter Cathy, a rather miserably aspiring Country and Western singer, and her sleazeball husband Howie, who sports a pencil-thin moustache and ‘a secret rash which stopped in a clean line at his collar and the cuffs of his shirt’. Cathy’s brother Mort is a more sporadic presence, while the other brother, Jack, has taken the wisest course of all and left Franklin for good: even if, as he sometimes admits to himself, all his best endeavours can never rescue him from being ‘a Catchprice – damaged, compromised, expedient’. There are also Frieda’s two grandchildren, Vish, who has joined the Krishnas as a way of escaping his family, and Benny, of whom more later. Readers who swooned over the glassy polish of Oscar and Lucinda, with its loving re-creation of Victorian proprieties, are likely to find The Tax Inspector bracingly contemporary, flagging its cultural map with all sorts of markers ranging from Judas Priest to Derek and Clive. In this respect it harks back to Bliss and to Carey’s early short stories, although its sourly comic vision of Australian life, in which what seems at first to be mere quirkiness rapidly shades into the downright sinister, appears to have its closest affinities with recent cinematic exports such as Jane Campion’s Sweetie and John Ruane’s Death in Brunswick. (Particularly the latter, since in this novel Carey has made a brave and largely successful attempt to reflect the diversity of Australia’s immigrant culture, with all its attendant conflicts and resentments.)

The Catchprices are, of course, sitting on dynamite: metaphorically, in that the whole family is nothing but a powder keg of hurt and anger just waiting to explode, and literally, in that the 86-year-old Frieda keeps a box of the stuff stashed away at the bottom of her wardrobe. The lighting of the metaphorical fuse takes place on a Monday morning (the action of the book covering only four days) with the arrival of a Tax Inspector, Maria Tarkis, who is Greek and eight months pregnant. Her arrival, described with a surface neutrality which nonetheless rumbles with portentousness, made me wonder at once why this figure has not featured more prominently in modern fiction. There can be few professions more loaded with the potential for transforming other people’s existence. In fact, Mort puts this very point to Maria when he suggests: ‘It must have occurred to you ... that what you decide affects our whole life.’

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