NEW AUSTRALIAN FICTION:
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.