Pooka

Frank Kermode

  • Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
    Faber, 328 pp, £15.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 571 19088 X

According to its dust-jacket, Jack Maggs is ‘by the author of Oscar and Lucinda’. It is in some respects unlike that novel, being shorter, darker and less furiously though still adequately inventive. Its economy may shock some folk, for Peter Carey is known to be an exuberant novelist, copious, various and fantastic. It is possible to admire his books for their lack of respect for boundaries, for the qualities they share with the work of modern Latin American novelists. However, they are always Australian. Antipodean glossaries are sometimes needed. The Old World is usually present for purposes of unfavourable comparison, implied rather than stated. There is a detectable ground-bass in almost all these fictions: despite the privations, indignities and suffering imposed on it by its colonists, all the repression they continued to exert until quite recently, all that self-consciousness about being the refuge of ‘second-rate Europeans’, Australia can at last be interested primarily in its own othernesses, in what occurs in a culture that is as remote from the protocols of the mother country (not that the expression can now be used without irony) as its fauna are from those of Europe. It took time for Australians to insist in this way on difference rather than resemblance: a point gently made by Carey when speaking of an autobiographical Sydney writer who chose to dwell on her eight months in Paris and ignore her 28 years in Australia. ‘Typical,’ he remarks; ‘but we will not go into that now.’

Readers will probably differ in their responses to these Antipodean, antinomian demonstrations. Some will love the exotic plotline of Oscar and Lucinda, which culminates in the building of a glass church and its passage down a tropical Australian river, splintering and gleaming, as trapped dragonflies beat the inside of the glass and the hero, a man who has a pathological dread of water, sweats, prays and will shortly drown. The book is well informed about glass, also about gambling, not only on horses but on cribbage; and about religion, especially of the Plymouth Brethren variety. It is the work of a writer who makes sure he knows a great deal about everything he decides to put into his books. Paxton, for instance, is in there, strongly associated, via the Crystal Palace, with glass. There is a fascinated explanation of the glass teardrops or tiny ampoules called Prince Rupert’s drops, or larmes bataviques, which will not break if struck, though if you cut off their tails they explode. (An allegory of the writer’s theme and his assault on it?) The story takes off from the Gosses, father and son, naturalist and memoirist. Carey acknowledges help from the Gosses and also from a man who taught him about glass and Prince Rupert’s drops. Another introduced him to horse racing. In finding things out Carey is following the rule that was long since laid down for his remote ancestors, the epic poets, of whom encyclopedic knowledge of everything, however out of the way, was required.

In this mood he writes the kind of thing you either like a lot or can easily do without. Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker Prize, which is one reason its title is emblazoned on the covers of Carey’s other books, not least on Bliss, the first and possibly the best of them before this one, but also on the even more fantastic Illywhacker, which is about a confidence trickster who starts the book by announcing that he is 139 years old. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith takes place in an imaginary country and begins while the hero is still in the womb, hence his first name.

This new novel is firmly set in the London of the 1830s, but Australia still broods heavily over the story. Maggs, a name with a Dickensian echo, was transported to New South Wales ‘for the term of his natural life’, a sentence which had earlier provided the title of Marcus Clarke’s book, published in 1871 and venerated as the first important Australian novel. Clarke wrote about the penal settlements, more recently and more harshly described by Robert Hughes. While Carey’s hero was held in such places he was flogged with unforgettable violence, his back permanently scarred and furrowed, and two of his fingers severed. (There was a specially destructive New South Wales double ‘cat’.) Having made money on his release in Australia, Maggs returns illegally to England, where the penalty on recapture is death, with the same fate decreed for all who harbour or help the offender. He is dedicated to his search for a young man he regards as his son. Almost by mistake he becomes a footman, in the house next door to that in which his ‘son’ is supposed to live. There he falls under the spell of Tobias Oates, novelist, journalist and mesmerist, who is interested in the man’s terrible tic douloureux, which he believes he can help by mesmerism. Meanwhile, as he waits to be led to his ‘son’, Maggs begins to write the secret story of his London youth as a rather Dickensian boy thief.

So the ends of the earth meet again, the links being crime and punishment. Oates the novelist acts in the guise of the hack who likes to fool with ‘magnetism’, which allows him to discover Maggs’s secret: seeing that wounded back, he pronounces Maggs an Australian scoundrel, though he is persuaded not to turn him in.

The London scene is convincing. Carey knows what it meant to be a footman, how footmen managed their hair, what it was like to ride with dignity on the running-board of a coach. He knows what is worth stealing (hallmarked silver), and what is not – Trafalgar Dalton, a middle-class sort of china, which signifies the low origins of Maggs’s aspiring master, Mr Buckle, a fish frier who has come into money. (It is unknown to the OED, which, however, understands ‘Trafalgar chair’ in something like the same sense, rather vulgar furniture bearing mementoes of the battle.)

There is quite a lot of contemporary slang, here not glossed, so you have to guess that a ‘Bilboa’ is a sword or dagger of some sort, carried by thugs and by Maggs; and you need to believe that Victorian convicts said things like ‘easy peasy’ and ‘I tremble tremble’, and called a policeman an ‘esclop’ (some kind of anagram, perhaps, though the OED has ‘esclopette’, a ‘primitive handgun’) as well as a ‘peeler’. Is a ‘racehorse’ a male homosexual, possibly a rent boy? What is a ‘pooka’? Doubtless a malignant sprite. One needs what one hasn’t got: a dictionary of 19th-century underworld slang.

Tobias Oates, chronicler of the London streets, a minor Mayhew, has enough trouble already, having impregnated his wife’s sister. He is also broke, and sees the exploitation of Maggs as a financial opportunity. But his main problem is that his magnetic experiments have added to Maggs’s suffering and made him even more dangerous than he had seemed on arrival. Oates’s irresponsible activities, as well as his passion for ‘characters’, his extraordinary memory and his powers of improvisation, make of him a sort of mirror image of a novelist. One of his sallies, involving the impersonation of a doctor pretending to find the Contagion in the house where Maggs is a servant, turns out to be a highly imprudent plot turn. Oates, in some respects merely a bright charlatan, is – so it is hinted – doing no more than novelists always must do when they risk chronicling a great city and its society, and make and break their subjects. This novelist sends out Mercy, the housemaid heroine (and Buckle’s bedfellow) and at the time under-age, into the Haymarket among the child whores, to give her youthful experience parallel to that of Maggs, the boy who slid down chimneys to open doors for fellow thieves. Both have led the criminal lives of the London poor, and their experiences are recounted with every appearance of exactness. For Carey must always seem exact, whether about the topography of Great Queen Street and Lamb’s Conduit Street and Covent Garden, or about the methods of thieves and the conduct of lawyers.

The book, alive with detail and incident, sometimes sounds quite like a 19th-century novel – as in the escape of Maggs and Oates down the Severn and their encounter with the Bore, or in the potentially murderous London climax. But there is a sweet Australian epilogue in which Maggs and Mercy are pastorally redeemed. Meanwhile, inside this novel, there is another, by Tobias himself, called The Death of Maggs. Published long after the events it purports to describe, and after Maggs’s quite natural death, it has its place in Mercy’s library. It portrays Jack as a murderer, as an instance of the criminal mind, as one proved a scoundrel by the ‘hallmarks of New South Wales’ indelibly inscribed on his back. This Maggs, unlike Carey’s, meets a terrible end. There is no Mercy in Oates’s novel.

The counterpointing is deft. The novelist inside Carey’s books is the muddled, ironic double of the writer who manipulates words and people, seems absolutely in charge, is a master of dialogue (often unexpected, never redundant) and is calculatedly liberal in the proliferation of event. This book has qualities in common with its predecessors, but it benefits by its narrower focus. It is a more complex, more profoundly excogitated, more self-critical achievement, and future reprints of Oscar and Lucinda may well bear the legend ‘by the author of Jack Maggs’.