Insurance no guarantee of a happy ending
The Butcherbird By Geoffrey Cousins Allen & Unwin, 274pp, $ 32.95
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.