And rogues

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes James Bradley’s

self-dis­cov­er­ies, Juan reg­u­larly falls into deep rev­er­ies that dredge up ghosts from the past.

“Many of Juan’s demons had been his child­hood com­pan­ions — he knew them so well, they were as fa­mil­iar as friends.” His dis­rup­tive dreams re­turn him and the reader to Mex­ico.

Those demons in­clude guardian an­gels such as an Iowan mis­sion­ary with a predilec­tion for lurid Hawai­ian shirts and self-flag­el­la­tion, a trans­ves­tite pros­ti­tute, and the dump boss who looks af­ter Juan, then runs over him.

Juan and Lupe flit from the shack and the dump they call home to the Je­suit or­phan­age and fi­nally to a cir­cus where Juan trains to be a “sky­walker’’ and we learn Lupe’s fate.

As ever, there is no fault­ing Irv­ing’s fe­cund imag­i­na­tion. Pages are splashed with vivid colour and thrum with ram­bunc­tious en­ergy.

Juan, the nov­el­ist, refers to him­self as a “keeper of de­tails”, but Irv­ing may just as well be de­scrib­ing him­self.

He fash­ions scenes and builds mini-sto­ries from inan­i­mate ob­jects (urns of ashes, con­doms) and crea­tures (a gecko, a mo­ray eel), and here mines scur­rilous com­edy from re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy (a nose­less Vir­gin Mary, stat­ues that re­sem­ble sex dolls).

Even the mi­nor fig­ures in Irv­ing’s rogues’ gallery are mem­o­rable, from a randy li­on­tamer to a draft-dodg­ing mescal hip­pie to a ter­ri­fy­ing dog named Di­abolo.

Yet de­spite all this, Av­enue of Mys­ter­ies is some­thing of a mixed bag. Plot has al­ways been his wife and young fam­ily, with his real sub­ject, his unresolved and con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther and his own un­sta­ble iden­tity.

The book be­gins on Christ­mas Day 2010 an op­tional add-on rather than a core in­gre­di­ent for Irv­ing, and here he dis­penses with it com­pletely, pre­fer­ring a string of loosely con­nected in­ci­dents and rev­e­la­tions.

He over-ex­plains his char­ac­ters (“Her name was Estrella, the word for ‘star’ ”) and fre­quently re­sorts to grat­ing ital­ics.

Irv­ing is a keen re­cy­cler of tropes and themes from past nov­els, and even ac­knowl­edges it by hav­ing Juan liken novel-writ­ing to dog-pad­dling: “It feels like you’re go­ing a long way, be­cause it’s a lot of work, but you’re ba­si­cally cov­er­ing old ground — you’re hang­ing out in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory.”

At times that ter­ri­tory is too fa­mil­iar. How­ever, there is still a great deal to enjoy here — pro­vided we ac­cept the im­plau­si­ble premise (an au­to­di­dac­tic, thor­oughly bilin­gual dump kid) as a flight of fancy. This is an­other sprawl­ing, roomy, char­ac­ter-led novel with its fair share of hard knocks and lucky breaks. As such, the peren­nial com­par­i­son to Charles Dick­ens is once again apt, with Irv­ing serv­ing up a child­hood as che­quered as that of David Cop­per­field and slyly re­pur­pos­ing the rub­bish heaps of Our Mu­tual Friend.

Ul­ti­mately, this is a book about faith, mir­a­cles and “what we don’t see com­ing and what we do”. There is rough and smooth, but the world ac­cord­ing to Irv­ing is still a fas­ci­nat­ing place.

is a Ed­in­burgh-based re­viewer. with Dal­garno’s wife, Jess, in labour. Newly ar­rived in Aus­tralia, the two of them are squat­ting in the liv­ing room of Jess’s mother and step­fa­ther, shar­ing the space with their 19month-old son Kolya. As they stum­ble about in the dark, at­tempt­ing not to wake the sleep­ing child, they snipe at each other in frus­tra­tion, Jess telling Paul (as Dal­garno is known in the book) to hurry up, Paul ir­ri­ta­bly de­mand­ing she be pa­tient as he at­tempts to ad­just the shower in the spare bath­room.

It is an in­ter­lude that sets the scene for much of what fol­lows. Hav­ing ar­rived in Ade­laide with Jess 35 weeks preg­nant, no prospect of a job and the con­tin­u­ing ex­pense of main­tain­ing an apart­ment back in Glas­gow ren­dered un­sellable by the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis (“we were sub­si­dis­ing a stranger’s life in our fur­nished for­mer dream home”), Paul and Jess quickly find them­selves strug­gling, emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially.

In a time when our screens are filled with im­ages of peo­ple flee­ing their homes in fear of their lives, it is tempt­ing to dis­miss Dal­garno’s ac­count of his ex­pe­ri­ences as a First World in­dul­gence. But that would be a mis­take, for a couple of rea­sons. Dal­garno’s mem­oir is a re­minder of the life-chang­ing up­heaval of mi­gra­tion, the de­gree to which it sev­ers those who un­der­take it from their pasts and the peo­ple and places that in­habit them.

As Paul re­flects at one point: “To my ears ‘I’m em­i­grat­ing to Aus­tralia’ was short­hand for good­bye — a way of say­ing you’d never see some­one again.”

And he also of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing and star­tlingly frank ex­plo­ration of con­tem­po­rary mas­culin­ity. In­creas­ingly lost, iso­lated and sleep­de­prived, Paul be­gins to re­sent his wife and chil­dren, sink­ing deeper and deeper into self­pity and anger, his in­ner mis­ery re­flected in his rapidly ex­pand­ing waist­line.

This some­times makes for con­fronting read­ing. For while parts of the book are gen­uinely funny, Dal­garno is ex­tremely ef­fec­tive at cap­tur­ing the tex­tures of his for­mer self’s self­loathing, or his sense of emo­tional in­ad­e­quacy in the face of chal­lenges pre­sented by his fam­ily and pro­fes­sional life; and, equally im­pres­sively, at com­mu­ni­cat­ing Paul’s fear that he is be­com­ing a version of his fa­ther, a man whose violence and emo­tional bru­tal­ity per­vades not just the book but Paul’s un­set­tled sense of iden­tity: “… since child­hood, I’d been swim­ming away from my dad, kick­ing free of his un­der­tow … yet here I was in my mid-thir­ties be­ing dragged back like Jonah into his leviathan mouth”.

Of course th­ese are anx­i­eties many men will recog­nise. Yet while read­ing And You May Find Your­self I was struck by just how rarely they are dis­cussed, let alone ex­plored with the self-lac­er­at­ing hon­esty Dal­garno brings to bear on his for­mer self.

Cer­tainly there are mo­ments when his ac­count feels un­com­fort­ably unresolved, a qual­ity that may well be at­trib­ut­able to the events he is de­scrib­ing be­ing so re­cent (as may the rel­a­tive shad­owi­ness of Jess’s fic­tional pres­ence), but this only makes the book more in­ter­est­ing.

For by deny­ing him­self the il­lu­sion of dis­tance, Dal­garno de­mands we en­gage not just with the per­sonal im­men­sity of his strug­gles but also their or­di­nar­i­ness and, one sus­pects, their ubiq­uity.

most re­cent novel is Clade.

De­tail from the cover of John Irv­ing’s Av­enue of Mys­ter­ies

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