The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

THERE’S some­thing of a gap in the Aus­tralian mar­ket for the kinds of hu­morist fic­tion we see in the work of Amer­i­can au­thor Gar­ri­son Keil­lor, for in­stance, or from Bri­tish nov­el­ists such as Ben El­ton and Nick Hornby.

Queens­lan­der Nick Earls is one lo­cal au­thor who has been suc­cess­ful writ­ing in this space. An­other Queens­lan­der, ac­tor Wil­liam McInnes, who presents in pub­lic as an iconic Aus­tralian male, is rapidly be­com­ing an­other.

McInnes’s new book, The Laugh­ing Clowns (Ha­chette, 288pp, $32.99), is a gen­tle satire with a warm res­o­lu­tion, its folksi­ness and nos­tal­gia more in tune with Keil­lor’s home­spun satires than with Hornby’s per­spi­ca­cious angst — though he also has some of El­ton’s ir­ri­tat­ing propen­sity for push­ing a joke.

Ar­chi­tect Peter Kennedy is large and fat, en­joy­ing the Mel­bourne good life: eat­ing too much, vagu­ing out on his teenage kids and an­noy­ing his wife with his men­tal ab­sen­teeism. Life is easy. Hav­ing traded in ar­chi­tec­ture for a lu­cra­tive con­sul­tancy assess­ing the suit­abil­ity of land for prop­erty devel­op­ment, he is a totem for the ac­ci­den­tal pros­per­ity many Aus­tralians of a cer­tain age have en­joyed.

To some ex­tent, Peter mea­sures his success by the dis­tance he has trav­elled from his ori­gins. Yet a call from a de­vel­oper sees him re­turn to them, the fic­tional Pick­ers­gill set on Bris­bane’s Red­land Bay to as­sess the com­mu­nity show­grounds for po­ten­tial devel­op­ment. Given his fa­ther has built some of the pavil­ions it is a brief he feels am­biva­lent about. But the money is ex­cel­lent and it’s not his habit to knock back a job.

He stays a while in his par­ents’ house, meets up with his best school­mate, who is try­ing to tell him some­thing that Peter in typ­i­cal fash­ion fails to pick up on. Af­ter ini­tially be­ing dis­mis­sive of the daggy ef­fu­sive­ness he en­coun­ters, he finds him­self be­ing awak­ened from his pros­per­ous emo­tional tor­por through re­con­nec­tion to his par­ents, sis­ter and brother.

What’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing about The Laugh­ing Clowns is that McInnes is clearly writ­ing for a main­stream au­di­ence and in speak­ing to them he is able to ar­tic­u­late some things about con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian so­ci­ety that many other nov­el­ists don’t see. No­table here is his un­der­stand­ing of how even outer sub­urbs such as Pick­ers­gill are ac­quir­ing some of the val­ues of what once was the pre­serve of in­ner-city so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

McInnes gen­er­ates warmth and hu­mour through the ex­cel­lent in­ter­ac­tion of well­drawn characters such as Peter’s par­ents, Ken and Mary. Some­times he lays it on a bit thick, but for its abil­ity to cap­ture hap­pi­ness on the page, The Laugh­ing Clowns is worth the read.

Faint Tap­pings at the Wrong Win­dow (Cre­ate Space, 314pp, $11.99), a warm and quirky of­fer­ing from teacher and ac­tor John Pratt, cap­tures some­thing of the zeit­geist of the Age of Aquarius with­out all of the mythol­o­gis­ing that of­ten at­tends to it. A hum­ble tale of a hip­pie try­ing to find a home for an aban­doned Afghan hound in 1975, it takes the reader from Syd­ney’s east­ern sub­urbs to Nimbin then to Ade­laide.

The strength here is Pratt’s abil­ity to cap­ture this par­tic­u­lar Aus­tralian past, a time of silli­ness and naivety where a read­ing of the I Ching might de­cide one’s course of ac­tion, yet a time also of open pos­si­bil­i­ties, when you didn’t need to be a mil­lion­aire to live be­tween those east­ern Syd­ney sub­urbs and By­ron Bay.

The pro­tag­o­nist, Ge­orge, a former teacher who gave that up for a hand-to-mouth ex­is­tence as an ac­tor, is slightly older than the scene that sur­rounds him and the novel is suf­fused with an out­sider tone that might be de­scribed as af­fec­tion­ate be­muse­ment.

This is by no means a per­fect novel, the idea that a stray Afghan hound might con­tinue to talk to its hu­man com­pan­ion long af­ter the acid trip has worn off is rather pre­pos­ter­ous, for in­stance. But such weak­nesses are more than com­pen­sated for by Pratt’s wry eye for the so­cial types and ten­sions of an era where pre-cos­mopoli­tan Aus­tralian so­ci­ety main­tained a stronger bar­rier be­tween the bo­hemian and the straight.

This ca­nine-as­sisted pi­caresque pro­vides some mem­o­rable vi­gnettes. One of my favourite scenes is the de­scrip­tion of a trip in the party car of the Syd­ney-Bris­bane train be­fore it was sani­tised by the in­tro­duc­tion of the XPT. But there are ex­cel­lent por­traits too of hu­man self­ish­ness in­fect­ing the ideals of Nimbin com­munes, and of the clash of pa­tri­cian and bo­hemian cul­ture in Ade­laide’s arts com­mu­nity. It’s par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing how re­mote th­ese well-sketched characters feel de­spite them still in­hab­it­ing the liv­ing past.

One in­ter­est­ing fea­ture of be­ing an im­mi­grant na­tion is that so many sto­ries of the 20th cen­tury have Aus­tralia as their con­clu­sion, a new be­gin­ning that marks the clo­sure of per­sonal nar­ra­tives that were of­ten shaped by the tur­moil of the cen­tury’s ide­o­log­i­cal ex­cesses. Sub­hash Jaireth’s Af­ter Love (Tran­sit Lounge, 304pp, $29.95) is a story of thwarted love that emanates from this con­text.

In­spired by his com­mu­nist un­cle, a young In­dian stu­dent, Vasu, trav­els to Moscow to study ur­ban plan­ning. Here he meets Anna, a cel­list and stu­dent of arche­ol­ogy. Both are moth­er­less chil­dren. The birth of Vasu, the youngest of eight, co­in­cided with the death of his mother, while Anna’s mother, an ac­tress, has been killed in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent while her fa­ther lan­guished in Siberian ex­ile.

Their emo­tional be­ings are ini­tially sketched rather than ex­plored. In the novel’s early sec­tions, Jaireth seems more in­ter­ested in the his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances of the main characters and their an­tecedents, as if launch­ing into a fam­ily saga, with the con­se­quence that the build-up of the love af­fair lacks juice.

Yet as is so of­ten the case, things be­come more in­ter­est­ing af­ter they get mar­ried and their re­la­tion­ship starts to fall apart. Here the au­thor shows great skill in trac­ing the fis­sures and cracks.

The back­ground, if over-de­tailed, is none­the­less fas­ci­nat­ing and shows the ten­sions in cer­tain modes of cul­tural ex­change that didn’t sur­vive the fall of the Iron Cur­tain. Af­ter Love shares turf with John Hughes’s re­cent The Rem­nants and while Jaireth’s novel is less of a philo­soph­i­cal out­ing, and has even less of an Aus­tralian fo­cus, it still pos­sesses ex­cel­lent in­sights into how what is thwarted can con­tinue to ex­ert a hold on us long af­ter its fully ex­pe­ri­enced equiv­a­lent might have dis­solved into the past.

The fic­tional small town of Jutt Rock on Vic­to­ria’s Great Ocean Road is the set­ting for Jarad Henry’s crime drama Pink Tide (Ar­ca­dia, 329pp, $29.95), the third in a se­ries fea­tur­ing po­lice­man DS Rubens McCauley. While the first two books, Head Shot and Blood Sun­set, were set in St Kilda, here Rubens has be­come what po­lice ar­got refers to as a ship­wreck, a cop­per who has burned out and been trans­ferred to a sup­pos­edly quiet coastal town. His dream of re­cu­per­a­tion in rus­tic­ity is prov­ing dif­fi­cult, how­ever. While Rubens re­sorts to a daily cock­tail of tran­quil­lis­ers and an­tide­pres­sants, his wife, orig­i­nally a lo­cal, is down­ing too many bot­tles of wine. Rubens’s rou­tine of un­spec­tac­u­lar polic­ing keep­ing the town’s petty crim­i­nals in check is thrown into dis­ar­ray when his nephew is found bashed to within an inch of his life in a lo­cal pub­lic toi­let, be­side the corpse of lo­cal hero and world-class surfer, Teddy Banks.

Ini­tial sus­pi­cion fig­ures the in­ci­dent as one of lo­cals ver­sus tourists, but it soon ap­pears that the crime is the prod­uct of ho­mo­pho­bia and the whole town and its con­ser­va­tive val­ues are drawn into play.

Garry Disher in his ex­cel­lent Chal­lis and Destry se­ries prob­a­bly does coastal Vic­to­ria bet­ter, but with its de­pic­tion of the ten­sions in tourist towns, which de­pend on the vis­i­tors they re­sent for their eco­nomic sur­vival, Pink Tide speck­les its so­cial ob­ser­va­tions fairly seam­lessly into a well­crafted plot.

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