Post­mod­ern postie de­liv­ers the goods

Man of Let­ters: Dog Rock 3

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley James Ley

By David Fos­ter Puncher & Wattmann, 142pp, $19.95

AT the risk of ap­pear­ing su­per­fi­cial, it must be said that David Fos­ter’s Man of Let­ters is worth seek­ing out for its cover. The adorn­ing pho­to­graph of a comely cow-shaped mail­box is surely one of the fun­ni­est im­ages to grace a work of fic­tion.

It is fit­ting, too. Fos­ter is a funny writer, and of­ten a cheeky one. His many nov­els are no­table for the scale of their in­tel­lec­tual am­bi­tions, but also for the comic brio with which their satir­i­cal tar­gets are pur­sued.

Fos­ter broke a seven-year si­lence in 2009 with Sons of the Ru­mour, a bold reimag­in­ing of The Ara­bian Nights that ranks as one of his finest achieve­ments, and though his lat­est novel is slight in com­par­i­son, it is nev­er­the­less a witty ad­di­tion to one of the rich­est and most idio­syn­cratic bod­ies of work in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.

Man of Let­ters is the third book in a se­ries that in­cludes Dog Rock (1985) and The Pale Blue Cro­chet Coathanger Cover (1988). All three are de­tec­tive story par­o­dies nar­rated by D’Arcy D’Oliveres, the dis­placed English aris­to­crat turned small­town Aus­tralian post­man, who also fea­tures in Fos­ter’s best­known work, the Miles Franklin­win­ning The Glade Within the Grove (1996).

The plot of Man of Let­ters in­volves not one but sev­eral mys­ter­ies. D’Arcy ini­tially re­turns to the ru­ral ham­let of Dog Rock to find out who is re­spon­si­ble for in­clud­ing an ob­scure lo­cal mu­si­cian named Ross Com­moner in a se­ries of stamps cel­e­brat­ing Aus­tralian Le­gends of Pop­u­lar Song, dud­ding Neil Finn in the process. (Yes, Finn is a New Zealan­der. But as D’Arcy points out, it is typ­i­cal of those lazy Ki­wis to leave it up to Aus­tralia to hon­our their le­gends for them.)

D’Arcy soon finds him­self caught in the de­tec­tive genre’s oblig­a­tory web of in­trigue. Not only does no one seem to know who caused the car ac­ci­dent that has left a young In­dian woman in a coma but a Bun­nings gift voucher has gone miss­ing and some­one has emas­cu­lated poor Roscoe, beloved cat of Ross’s sis­ter Co­ralie, whom D’Arcy rather fan­cies (Co­ralie, that is, not the cat).

The trav­es­ty­ing of the con­ven­tions of de­tec­tive fic­tion, on one level, is a pre­text to get D’Arcy back on his old mail route so he can tour the town, in­ter­act with the lo­cals and muse about the many changes he en­coun­ters. But the novel’s shaggy dog qual­ity is wed­ded to an aware­ness of the way in which a de­tec­tive story can func­tion as a metaphor for a wider pur­suit of co­her­ence and mean­ing.

One of the run­ning jokes in Man of Let­ters is the un­usual preva­lence of van­ity li­cence plates in Dog Rock. Ross, sus­pi­ciously, has ex­changed his de­fi­ant IOU FA plates for the more po­lite GRAZIA. Un­for­tu­nately, D’Arcy’s spar­ring part­ner, Sergeant Cad­wal­loper, who has a bur­geon­ing in­ter­est in semi­otics (he is writ­ing a PhD the­sis on offensive bumper stick­ers), is obliged to point out that these ap­par­ent clues are merely float­ing rep­re­sen­ta­mens whose mean­ing is in­de­ter­mi­nate.

The nar­ra­tive it­self, which pro­ceeds through many twists and re-eval­u­a­tions, is a wres­tle with the threat of in­co­her­ence. This is as­so­ci­ated with the mod­ern world’s en­croach­ments and the way these are seen to be cor­rod­ing the pas­toral idyll of Dog Rock. There was a time, D’Arcy opines, when his work as a mail­man gave him the kind of in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the town’s ge­og­ra­phy and its in­hab­i­tants that al­lowed him to de­tect an un­der­ly­ing pat­tern. But no longer. His aim be­comes not only to solve the mys­tery of Ross Com­moner’s un­ac­count­able philatelic hon­our but to solve the puz­zle of how to make an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of atom­ised signs into some­thing mean­ing­ful, in de­fi­ance of what Cad­wal­loper calls the ‘‘ age of dis­trac­tion’’.

It is a big theme for a small book, though Fos­ter doesn’t make it seem oner­ous. He keeps the story tick­ing along and the mood play­ful. The Dog Rock nov­els sit at the con­ge­nial end of the spec­trum of his of­ten iras­ci­ble and com­bat­ive fic­tion. Man of Let­ters has some satir­i­cal sport with the pro­lif­er­at­ing acronyms and ab­bre­vi­a­tions of mod­ern English, but its com­i­cal de­pic­tion of the towns­peo­ple is af­fec­tion­ate and for­giv­ing. Their some­times pe­cu­liar be­hav­iour is, as D’Arcy fre­quently has rea­son to re­mind him­self, merely the man­i­fes­ta­tion of each per­son striv­ing to achieve his or her ends.

Much of the novel’s charm re­sides in D’Arcy’s avun­cu­lar per­sona. One of its nar­ra­tive con­ceits is that he ad­dresses the reader di­rectly; he even asks for a help­ing hand oc­ca­sion­ally. To read Man of Let­ters is, in ef­fect, to be en­listed as his side­kick. The per­for­mance is sus­tained on the strength of Fos­ter’s mas­tery of the Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar and the agree­able strain of lar­rikin hu­mour that has long an­i­mated his fic­tion. The ir­rev­er­ent in­tel­li­gence of writ­ing is ev­i­dent on ev­ery page. As D’Arcy boasts near the be­gin­ning of the novel: ‘‘ Once I don my plas­tic mail­lot jaune and kick-start that Honda, watch out for in­sight.’’

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