Accommodating demands of survival
In his brilliant and unsettling novel Waiting, Philip Salom has unleashed Australia’s oddest literary couple since the elderly twin brothers Arthur and Waldo Brown in Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala (1966).
First we have Big, ‘‘a man who talked like a crazy professor and dressed like a queen’’. Besides this, he is a very large 60-year-old transvestite, a former shearers’ cook and Vietnam veteran (of ‘‘the typing pool’’), a not wholly reformed card player with a stentorian public voice who grandly declares, ‘‘I am incapable of hurry.’’ One of his closest fictional resemblances is to Ignatius Reilly, the outrageous denizen of New Orleans in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
Big’s partner is Little, the nickname bestowed on a shy woman called Agnes by others in the North Melbourne rooming house where she and Big live. She is in her 30s and beset by failing kidneys courtesy of lupus. At inopportune moments, ‘‘her Lupus butterfly flutters to the surface. Rosacea. As often as not it says: I want to hide.” Yet she has no want of spirit: ‘‘there are times one simply has to face the oddities in oneself’’.
Salom introduces Big and Little as they are walking up a hill and at once challenges his audience: ‘‘How to avoid the projection, the cliches we indulge in when two odd people are walking?’’ Can they enlist, instead, the empathy of readers who enmeshed in their stories?
Intersecting with the lives and travails of Big and Little are those of another apparently illassorted couple. Angus is a recently and bitterly divorced landscape gardener who has moved from South Australia to Victoria. While he ‘‘even seems to grin with his muscles’’, he is more vulnerable than that suggests: ‘‘he seems self-reliant and calm. Something in him has been burnt all the same.’’ The choice of that verb will become clear. Apart from planning public gardens and others around apartment buildings, Angus believes he has designed houses capable of resisting bushfires. But one of them has burned down in a fire deliberately lit by a Country Fire Authority volunteer because the occupier had used the emergency water supply for his marijuana crop.
Insider arson is emphatically not ‘‘an urban myth’’, Angus tells Jasmin, a semiotics lecturer at a Melbourne university whom he meets at a party in ‘‘fire-blackened hills’’ outside the city. She is ambitious, intellectually restless, stalled for promotion by a publisher’s delay in bringing out her second book. Deftly Salom sketches the frustrations and still not quite vanished allure of a modern academic career. In one striking vignette, Jasmin explains to an idle, handsome, party-loving Asian student that he has failed, notwithstanding his declaration that ‘‘I have to pass’’ because of the shame that otherwise will await him at home.
Salom also gives us a vivid sense of Angus’s working life, letting us imagine how one of his most daring designs — at a site called the Lakes — would appear and impress. We see it through Jasmine’s eyes: ‘‘The more she walks around the