Ac­com­mo­dat­ing de­mands of sur­vival

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

might

be­come

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

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