In­sur­ance no guar­an­tee of a happy end­ing

The Butcher­bird By Ge­of­frey Cousins Allen & Un­win, 274pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Andrew Main

ONE grow­ing genre of book that is bound to make a few sales in Melbourne ( or Bris­bane or Ade­laide) is the Syd­ney- set, rich- man’s- play­ground novel in which dodgy lizards in leop­ard skin- pat­terned budgie smug­glers abuse and be­tray each other against a back­ground of vul­gar lux­ury.

Ge­of­frey Cousins, a for­mer head of ad­ver­tis­ing agency Ge­orge Pat­ter­son, who at one stage found him­self run­ning Op­tus, is al­most cer­tainly a model of deco­rum in the style de­part­ment but he knows the play­ground well, so it’s no sur­prise he uses it for his first foray into fiction.

His old Ge­orge Patts col­league Bryce Courte­nay gives the book a plug on the cover us­ing the word ‘‘ ir­re­sistible’’, but it’s al­most cer­tainly a ghoul­ish rather than a lit­er­ary un­put­down­abil­ity that he is talk­ing about.

The book’s real ap­peal is two

fi­nite groups: those non- Syd­ney read­ers with a sense of griev­ance, and the peo­ple on the sup­posed Syd­ney A- list who might be wor­ried about find­ing them­selves in the book. With non­fic­tion books they can check the in­dex in the book­shop with­out hav­ing to give the credit card a can­ter, but with fiction they may need to try a bit harder.

Cousins’s plot, which has bouts of anorexia, in­volves an ar­chi­tect be­ing asked to take on the chief ex­ec­u­tive’s job at a gi­ant in­sur­ance com­pany. That’s what Ed­die McGuire would call play­ing out of po­si­tion, some­thing Cousins knows well, too. He must have asked him­self what skills an ad­ver­tis­ing man could bring to a phone com­pany, but he said yes all the same. Cousins has tele­scoped two as­pects of the HIH saga in a way that trag­ics would pick apart, but he per­forms the use­ful ser­vice of show­ing what a dis­grace­ful sham fi­nan­cial rein­sur­ance, as it is called, can be in bodg­ing up in­sur­ance com­pany ac­counts.

Most par­tic­u­larly he de­scribes a com­pany that’s be­ing bled dry by hav­ing cash si­phoned out of it faster than a For­mula One car re­fu­eller, while its ac­counts are be­ing patched up by the ju­di­cious use of fi­nan­cial rein­sur­ance. The lat­ter’s a kind of fi­nan­cial hole- filler that’s no more than

a dis­guised loan by a fi­nan­cially solid com­pany that is look­ing for a tax dodge. HIH In­sur­ance and FAI were many things but the si­phon­ing, such as it was, and the fi­nan­cial rein­sur­ance deals did not oc­cur si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Bor­ing? In­sur­ance is ac­tu­ally quite in­ter­est­ing once you get the hang of it, but there’s not enough chewy ma­te­rial in the book to get a good bite of. Cousins leaps off to other plot de­vices just as the read­ers be­gin to get the hang of how the fi­nan­cial tricks work.

And in fact Ray Wil­liams and Rod­ney Adler, two of the main play­ers in Aus­tralia’s big­gest cor­po­rate col­lapse, are more colour­ful in­di­vid­u­als than most fiction writ­ers would dare to dream up. Cousins lays on the de­scrip­tions with cyn­i­cal glee but his char­ac­ters are mostly stereo­types, ei­ther slightly flawed or to­tally amoral. He­roes are thin on his ground. He also ap­pears to be plan­ning a se­quel, as the book has more loose ends than an old car­pet. A fi­nal griz­zle. Any book of this type, which looks to be only about 80,000 words, shouldn’t con­tain howlers such as ‘‘ tay­lor’’ as fish, ‘‘ Araldyte’’ for a glue and ‘‘ Ever­leigh Street’’ for the Eveleigh Street rail­way work­shops. It’s a mis­for­tune that at a time when it’s so hard for first- time fiction writ­ers to find a pub­lisher, a rare move to pro­mote a high- profile new au­thor such as Cousins isn’t ac­com­pa­nied by a bit of sharp- eyed edit­ing. Andrew Main is The Aus­tralian’s busi­ness ed­i­tor and au­thor of Other Peo­ple’s Money: The Com­plete Story of the Ex­tra­or­di­nary Col­lapse of HIH.

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