I’ve wanted for some time to read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) back-to-back with Oscar and Lucinda (1988). My (distant!) memories of Illywhacker was that it was every bit the classic that O&L turned out to be, but somehow it seems to have been overshadowed by the latter’s Booker Prize-winning success. An example of this is on the front cover of my old edition where it is pointed out that Illywhacker was written “by the author of Oscar and Lucinda”!
There are some interesting parallels between them. They both have first person to third person narrative ‘frames’. I’ve noted with O&L that this seemed illogical, but with Illywhacker the wonderful open silences any similar concern we might have … in this story, anything goes:
My name is Herbert Badgery. I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. … I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar. I say that early to set things straight. Caveat emptor.
What a wonderful open.
The narrative frame works better in Illywhacker for other reasons too: though some of the scenes are a stretch for our first-person narrator, he does have connections and shares correspondence with other characters which makes this ‘reach’ believable.
Illywhacker is a big rollicking picaresque romp covering three generations, with helpings of lyrical ‘hyper-realism’ and a dash or two of magical realism. There are so many story threads it’s hard to summarise the plot. Herbert is an early Australian aviator and car seller and dreams of making Australian planes and Australian cars. He almost secures funding but his scheme to make planes fails and he seems to give up on selling cars because none are Australian. This notion of industries being sold or owned by Americans and then later Japanese interests rather than being our own is perhaps the central underlying theme of the novel. When Herbert’s son Charles buys a Holden and proclaims it an Australian car, something his father should be proud of, Herbert can’t contain his anger, saying that Holden is American-owned and that the car is not Australian.
Alloyed to this theme of ownership is the associated question of national identity, how strong it is and how it places us in the wider world. Much has changed in the past 26 years since the book was first published, though our ‘local’ car industry is still owned by the major international conglomerates. I wonder what Carey must think of the economic situation in the US now (where he lives), the run-down of the uncompetitive US car manufacturers and the unrelated fact that most of the US government debt is owned by China…
In any event, events spiral out from Herbert’s efforts to secure the funding from a man named Jack McGrath who puts up Herbert in his rambling well-to-do mansion after Herbert crash-lands his plane into a farm next to where Jack and his wife, Molly, and daughter, Phoebe, are picnicking. Herbert, an inveterate liar and womaniser, eyes off Phoebe as well as her old man’s money, selling him the dream of an Australian aeronautical industry. Poor Jack dies, possibly of shame when he introduces Herbert to his business associates and the truth begins to unravel. He comes back to haunt Herbert as a ghost after old Herbert shacks up with spoilt Phoebe. This is poignant given Herbert and Jack’s earlier conversation where Jack told Herbert he did not favour older men with younger women. Herbert builds a make-shift home for Phoebe (who he marries, although it turns out he already is!) and Molly out on the mudflats on land he doesn’t own, but it is not enough for Phoebe who, after bearing him two children, takes off with her female lover for Sydney.
And this is just the start of the novel!
We learn of Herbert’s upbringing, how he was taken in and reared by an old Chinese man, named Goon Tse Ying. Ying teaches Herbert the trick of disappearing. He warns Herbert not to use it as one of the repercussions of the trick is the making of dragons which bring evil into the world. Needless to say Herbert uses the trick in order to impress a woman, Leah Goldstein, who becomes his lover. While the trick impresses Leah it does indeed summon tragedy into Herbert’s life after his children try to imitate him.
Dragons and snakes form a recurring motif throughout. Herbert’s son Charles becomes expert in the handling of snakes and then all creatures. This skill is used by Herbert to run scams in country pubs. It is also a talent which Charles then uses to create ‘The Best Pet Shop in the World’ in an arcade between George and Pitt Streets (reminiscent of our lovely Strand arcade) in Sydney in later years when Herbert is in jail. Charles makes this into a success with his bare hands, but it transpires that some of the funding for the venture has come from an oil company in the US. It seems that even pet stores have been sold off to foreign interests!
There is so much to love about this story. The writing is Carey at his best: the historical details are vivid, the character sketches Dickensian, the descriptions of landscape lyrical. Take for instance, [p62]:
The line of dwarf yellow cypress pines along Blobell’s Hill was smudged by dull grey cloud and nothing in the landscape was distinct except the particularly clear sound of a crow above the saltpans flying north towards O’Hagen’s. It sounded like barbed wire.
Leah has a laugh [p209] which is “a tangle like blackberries, sweet, prickly, untidy, uncivilized…”
There are wonderful descriptions of wildlife too, glorious parrots. (Any story that has king parrots in it is, in my view, a winner.)
And there is this advice on Sydney that Herbert gives Hissao, [p508]:
I showed him, most important of all, the sort of city it was – full of trickery and deception. If you push against it too hard you will find yourself leaning against empty air. It is never, for all its brick and concrete, quite substantial and I would not be surprised to wake one morning and find the whole thing gone, with only the grinning facade of Luna Park rising from the blue shimmer of eucalyptus bush.
The plot continues to spiral and I won’t try to describe it any further. Suffice to say there are shenanigans aplenty when Herbert gets out of jail and comes to Sydney to live with Charles and the menageries of people and pets he has acquired – including his wife, Emma, who decides she’d rather live in a cage. There is more triumph and tragedy. There are tales of communists and smuggling. There are deserved digs at the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ of the mid 2oth century. There is Carey touching on aboriginal issues too, albeit briefly. There is Herbert’s grandson Hissao’s desperate effort to rescue the shop, which he does by securing Japanese funding, turning the pet shop into a bizarre and macabre show of people rather than just pets. Herbert himself becomes one of the displays. The selling off of Australia is complete – we begin to sell ourselves.
There are, of course, differences between Illywhacker and O&L. O&L’s characterisation is deeper and sharper, more thoughtful – there is a lot of symbolism in Oscar and Lucinda’s characters. These facets are to be expected in a book that focuses on two people. Illywhacker spreads time across three generations and multiple wives and lovers. Back stories are always fleshed out, even for minor characters. There is a lot more ‘going on’. But the theme of the selling out of Australian industry to overseas, of demurring to older or more confident nations, of being unsure of ourselves, comes across quite strongly. There are a lot of characters serving the overall thematic structure.
If it has faults, say its length and its long back-stories to minor characters, they are for me easily overlooked by the richness and joy in such diversions and how Carey ties them together.
In the end you can’t compare apples with oranges. Oscar and Lucinda is a tragic love story built upon a folly. There is almost folly here too, but only to show the extremes with which the selling of Australian business to overseas interests is taken, to heighten the deep comic thrust of the narrative – for Illywhacker is a very funny book. For me, Illywhacker is every bit as good as Oscar and Lucinda. Rather than being cast in the latter’s shadow, it deserves its own spotlight. It is a great book, Carey at his exuberant best. It has kept me silent company all these years and it remains one of my all time favourites.
As an aside, it seems to me that Illywhacker and Steve Toltz’s Booker shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole share the same DNA. They are both big rambling multi-generational comic tales that shine a light on what it means to be Australian, though each through their own unique lens. (Their protagonist narrators both spend time in prison too.) Lovers of one will enjoy the other. What other books do you see as fitting into this particularly Australian comic story-telling cast? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and/or whether you think Illywhacker stands up to Oscar and Lucinda.
The Dilettante’s Rating: 5/5
Illywhacker by Peter Carey
faber and faber
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)