Quest leads sleuth back to the dope zone

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Mil­ton scholar, po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal, pub­lisher at Wild & Wool­ley, nov­el­ist and critic, Michael Wild­ing has crafted one of the most re­mark­able ca­reers of any con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian writer.

Wild­ing has been a mav­er­ick within such con­ser­va­tive in­sti­tu­tions as Syd­ney Univer­sity, and by turns so­cia­ble and a loner in a so­ci­ety that has trans­muted from the coun­ter­cul­tural rev­elry of the 1960s into a present that he finds dour and riven with sus­pi­cion.

One of his no­table re­cent tri­umphs (a book he classes mod­estly as a ‘‘doc­u­men­tary’’) was Wild Bleak Bo­hemia, a bril­liant lit­er­ary, cul­tural and per­sonal his­tory of three legendary and self-de­struc­tive colo­nial writ­ers: Mar­cus Clarke, Adam Lind­say Gor­don and Henry Ken­dall.

His au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work Go­ing Wild has also been pub­lished, and now comes the fifth out­ing for the pri­vate de­tec­tive called Plant, In the Val­ley of the Weed, which sees Wild­ing’s hero re­turn to the dope fields in­land from By­ron Bay where he had ven­tured in The Prisoner of Mount Warn­ing.

The lat­est novel opens with a mes­sage from Plant’s friend, the di­shev­elled con­spir­acy the­o­rist Ful­lalove, to make con­tact with the silky, sin­is­ter fig­ure from one of the dark reaches of the Aus­tralian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, Un­cle Toby, or Pro­fes­sor Oates as he had been in civil­ian life.

They meet at a restau­rant at Burleigh Heads. Plant says no to a drink: ‘‘These were the days of de­clin­ing things.’’

Toby in­forms him that his for­mer student and ‘‘dear friend’’ Tim Vi­cars, who has been in Syd­ney on a vis­it­ing fel­low­ship, has dis­ap­peared. His dis­tressed part­ner Kate wants him found, but ‘‘we don’t think it’s a po­lice mat­ter’’. Fur­ther — Toby to Plant — ‘‘I see your role more in the shad­ows.’’

Can aca­demic re­search place one in mor­tal dan­ger? Vi­cars was ‘‘a player in two ma­jor de­bates’’: one con­cern­ing free­dom of the in­ter­net, the other the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of mar­i­juana. His in­ter­ven­tion may have made him vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack from either side, but his own feck­less­ness has sent him into hid­ing.

Some­one has hacked Vi­cars’s univer­sity emails, re­veal­ing ‘‘racist and sex­ist and ho­mo­pho­bic stuff. Any­thing you’re not al­lowed to say.’’ The univer­sity has righ­teously sus­pended him. The so­cial me­dia posse is ec­static: ‘‘Sud­denly they were able to ut­ter all those fright­ful words they had al­ways wanted to say’’ — in quo­ta­tion marks, of course.

Plant heads to the gated Queens­land com­mu­nity where Kate lives with her guard dog Kim. Her in­for­ma­tion sends him on the long drive south to see what traces of Vi­cars may be found in his Syd­ney apart­ment.

First he holes up in Ful­lalove’s ‘‘in­ner-city hovel’’, which is stuffed with books about the se­cret ser­vices and pornog­ra­phy, all of which he in­tends to sell through un­trace­able chan­nels: ‘‘The sur­veil­lance so­ci­ety, it’s like pro­hi­bi­tion. Cre­ates an op­por­tu­nity.’’

Ful­lalove’s glee­ful para­noia pro­vides high­lights in Wild­ing’s nov­els, through the deft, swift di­a­logue be­tween Ful­lalove and Plant, his sound­ing board. The lat­ter is in­structed, for in­stance, about the in­ter­net, in which ‘‘there’s no cen­sor­ship and ev­ery­thing is mon­i­tored’’.

Three more women soon com­pli­cate the search for Vi­cars, be­sides in­creas­ing the num­ber of those who might wish him harm. One is his lover, fit­ness ad­dict Bess Birm­ing­ham. An­other is An­gela Dark, for­mer lib­er­tar­ian an­ar­chist cum colum­nist on a re­ac­tionary broad­sheet and now ed­i­tor of the in­ter­net mag­a­zine From the Dark Side, where Vi­cars’s emails were pub­lished. Fi­nally there is Jac­que­line Gold, known as Agent Or­ange — Vi­cars’s lit­er­ary agent — of whom Plant judges that she ‘‘was foul-mouthed, hated lit­er­a­ture and loathed writ­ers’’.

Plant’s in­ter­est is quick­ened when Vi­cars is found near the Queens­land bor­der. Whether he is alive or dead is for readers to find out. Magic mush­rooms are in­volved. This leads Plant and Ful­lalove (apart from much else, a droll ver­sion of other fa­mous de­tec­tive pair­ings) into the hin­ter­land where age­ing dope­heads deal, among them Klip: ‘‘It’s short for klep­to­ma­nia in a post­colo­nial ac­cent.’’

Ful­lalove wants to get back to Syd­ney: ‘‘The mean streets. He needed to be jos­tled on pave­ments and so­licited by beg­gars.’’ But Plant per­se­veres with his in­quiries along the Weed Coast Way. His next assig­na­tion with Un­cle Toby is at Gold Coast air­port, where the old spook com­plains: ‘‘I can re­mem­ber when fly­ing was an oc­ca­sion. You dressed up for it.’’

Wild­ing’s satir­i­cal edge never dulls, whether

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