In Australian slang, an illywhacker is a country fair con man, an unprincipled seller of fake diamonds and dubious tonics. And Herbert Badgery, the 139-year-old narrator of Peter Carey's uproarious novel, may be the king of them all. Vagabond and charlatan, aviator and car salesman, seducer and patriarch, Badgery is a walking embodiment of the Australian national character--espcially of its proclivity for tall stories and barefaced lies. As Carey follows this charming scoundrel across a continent and a century, he creates a crazy quilt of outlandish encounters, with characters that include a genteel dowager who fends off madness with an electric belt and a ravishing young girl with a dangerous fondness for rooftop trysts. Boldly inventive, irresistibly odd, Illywhacker is further proof that Peter Carey is one of the most enchanting writers at work in any hemisphere.
Peter Carey, the author of this wonderful book, has a lyrical pen that does wonders bringing the off beat characters to life. This applies equally to his human characters, Herbert Badgery, the ancient narrator of the entire tale, Leah Goldstein, one of his love interests and a Communist Activist / Dancer, to name just two, and a goanna, an Australian Monitor Lizard, that has an integral part in the story. Carey plays on the national pride of Australians, takes pot shots at American industry and in general, pokes fun at just about everything, especially marriage and the process of aging, though not necessarily the two together.
While the Australian slang may be puzzling to some readers, the richness of the scenes makes it easy to figure out the meanings. It may take a while to get through, but it is very much worth the read, so much so that I now want to explore more works by Peter Carey.
Loved this book the more I got into it. Weird in a thought provoking and need-to-share way - my favourite genre! Beautiful bird imagery, powerful story-telling, brilliant setting, mad characters who remain with you, magnificent ending, in line with the dark and brooding humour throughout; already got my next Carey novel read to go.
How ya going?
What do you know!
Well, strike a light!
And how ya go-o-oing?
Just say g'day, g'day, g'day,
And you'll be right!
This is a novel about Australia: the souvenir-shop image of Slim Dusty records and tourist posters, and the romantic but gritty reality that underlies it. It is about how to separate the two: how to celebrate your own history without turning it into a cartoon or a travesty. It is, in short, about ‘the problems of belief and principle’ faced by three generations of proud Australians.
‘I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old,’ our narrator, Herbert Badgery, tells us at the start. ‘I am a terrible liar…My age is the one fact you can rely on.’ His being 139 is, of course, one of the least believable ‘facts’ in here, and so right from the beginning of this long, picaresque novel, there is an in-built lack of trust – an uncertainty which frees you up to concentrate on the emotional and symbolic value of what you're being told without worrying too much about its feasibility.
Just as well, because the plot at times feels like nothing more than a series of tall tales, shaggy dog stories, fireside anecdotes and family legends – albeit brilliantly told ones, because Peter Carey seems incapable of writing a boring sentence. Planes are crashed, children are conceived, narrow escapes are had. At first I thought it was brilliant, but I have to admit that the novel gradually beat me down from four stars to three-and-a-half. The problem is one of focus. There isn't one – or if there is, it's the whole country. The book rambles, and even our aged narrator does not constitute a central character for much of it – many sections do not involve him at all, and although the digressions are enjoyable I found myself wondering what exactly it was adding up to.
But perhaps this is my fault. Characters, central or otherwise, are not the main concern, and Carey tells us as much near the end, in a reference to one character's own literary exploits:
the real subject of Goldstein's work was not the people, but the landscape and its roads, red, yellow, white, ochre, mustard, dun, madeira, maize, the raw optimistic tracks that cut the arteries of an ancient culture before a new one had been born.
Illywhacker likewise takes us on a delirious journey through western Victoria, the placenames beating out a steady rhythm in a way that reminded me of the geographical romance of Kerouac's America: Ballarat, Bacchus Marsh, Jeparit, Geelong, not to mention wonderful sketches of Melbourne and Sydney. ‘It is not a country where you can rest,’ says one character. ‘It is a black man's country: sharp stones, rocks, sticks, bull ants, flies. We can only move around it like tourists.’
The book itself tries (like so many of its characters) to forge or identify some kind of authentic Australia. Its language is discretely shot through with regionalisms: wildlife like she-oaks and yabbies, people that work as cockies or bushies or rabbit-ohs, obscure references to mud-maps and kero and dunnymen, clichés like Akubras, fair-dinkum and dinky-di, surprising mundanities like ‘nature strips’ and ‘rear-vision mirrors’. Sentences like ‘the johns had sworn to massacre the swaggies if they jumped the rattler.’
In the early parts of the book, set in the 1910s and 1920s, this Australia is defined in opposition to England, and Herbert reserves his most withering scorn for fellow countrymen who still idolise the motherland.
It was what happened in this country. The minute they began to make a quid they started to turn into Englishmen. Cocky Abbot was probably descended from some old cockney lag, who had arrived here talking flash language, a pickpocket, a bread-stealer, and now, a hundred years later his descendents were dressing like his gaolers and torturers, disowning the language, softening their vowels, greasing their way into the plummy speech of the men who had ordered their ancestors lashed until the flesh had been dragged in bleeding strips from their naked backs.
But towards the end of the book, the enemy shifts to become multinational industry in general, and American investors (who ‘misunderstood our ironies and took them for firmly held beliefs’) in particular. Herbert and his family, struggling to turn their Sydney premises into a monument to Australian fauna, end up with something between a tourist attraction and a prison, funded by General Motors and owned by the Mitsubishi Company of Japan. Almost everyone involved ends up reduced to – in Carey's typically memorable phrase – ‘a skin-wrapped parcel of fucked-up dreams’.
‘I have not valued what I have loved,’ frets one character. To this extent Illywhacker is a cautionary tale. You can love your country to your heart's content, but giving it its proper value is an altogether trickier proposition. In a country founded on lies, maybe lying is the best solution after all.
I learned a lot about Australian culture and history and geography , not to mention the countless fauna that inhabit the continent. Most of all however I realised that it is not just me that pretends to be someone who I am not as part of my daily routine, it happens to almost everyone in this novel and I suspect in real life too. At first I thought that the main charater, herbert Badgery would be an Illywhacker, a total scoundrel and conman. However in reality everyone else is just as weird and messed up as he is. In fact you could say that all he ever wanted was to settle down and build a house around a family.
A must read for any book club, I can just imagine now the heated debates over the characters in the book. The narative stays with you a long time after the final words and raises a whole heap of questions about family, lying and the Australian national identity.
Herbert Badgery, Illywhacker’s protagonist and omniscient narrator, begins the novel by announcing that he is “a hundred and thirty-nine years old… and a terrible liar.” The story begins in Victoria in 1919 when he is thirty-two years old and engine trouble forces him to land his plane in a country field, where he meets the picnicking McGrath family. This chance encounter leads to his friendship with Jack McGrath, with whom he plans to open an aeroplane factory, his romance with Jack’s teenage daughter Phoebe, and the subsequent deaths, births, weddings, adventures and trials that follow – and this is just in the first third of the novel.
After reading Oscar and Lucinda I compared Carey, or at least an aspect of his writing, to Terry Pratchett – a sort of wry, witty sense of human nature and a dry way of dropping random information to sum up encounters between two different people. For example, when a self-important woman attempts to convince a policeman of her importance:
“My father was a Colonel McInlay,” she told the sergeant who had successfully conspired to shoot a major in Ypres.
There’s an element of Carey’s style which also reminds me of Michael Chabon’s, particularly in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, though I can’t quite articulate why. A sort of omniscient third person perspective that expounds upon the characters’ thoughts and feelings and futures, without ever seeming overdone.
For all the comparisons, Carey undoubtedly has a unique writing style. I particularly like his knack for imbuing Australian place names with a sense of fabulousness, admiring their innate lyrical beauty: Jeparit, Bendigo, Jindabyne, Geelong, Terang. (Perhaps this is part of why I didn’t care for Bliss, which takes place in city suspiciously like Brisbane which nonetheless goes unnamed.) Illywhacker covers more of Australia than any of Carey’s other books, rambling across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and Herbert Badgery has an insight on everywhere:
I have heard people describe Bendigo as a country town. They mention it in the same breath as Shepparton or Ararat. These people have never been to Bendigo and don’t know what they’re talking about. The Town Hall is the equal of anything in Florence; the Law Courts would not look frumpish in Versailles. And if there are farmers in the streets, dark cafes with three courses for two and sixpence and, in Hayes Street, a Co-op dedicated to Norfield Wire Strainers and Cattle Drench, it does not alter the fact that Bendigo is a town of the Gold Age.
If Illywhacker has an underlying theme beneath its sprawling family saga, it’s the cultural cringe and the Australian sense of inferiority. At the beginning of the novel, a 32-year-old Badgery is determined to establish an Australian aviation industry; later, he becomes disillusioned with his job selling Ford cars, and rants against the Holden slogan, “Australia’s own car,” given Holden was owned by GM. When a guest at his wedding says “I could fancy I was sitting, at this very moment, in Paris,” Badgery says he was “so happy I could not find it in my heart to ask the old gentleman what was wrong with sitting in Melbourne.” He has nothing but contempt for the Australians who behave as Englishmen:
You would think Cocky Abbot a reasonable fellow until you met the son, and then you saw what was wrong with him. It was what happened in this country. The minute they began to make a quid they started to turn into Englishmen. Cocky Abbot was probably descended from some old cockney lag, who had arrived here talking flash language, a pickpocket, a bread-stealer, and now, a hundred years later his descendants were dressing like his gaolers and torturers, disowning the language, softening their vowels, greasing their way into the plummy speech of the men who had ordered their ancestors lashed until the flesh had been dragged in bleeding strips from their backs.
There are also elements of Carey’s light touch at magic realism – an adoptive Chinese father who teaches Badgery an invisibility trick, a priest who swears he once saw a fairy, a jar containing a severed finger which sometimes, to different people, contains completely different things. Badgery’s self-confessed liar status makes it difficult to tell what really happened and what’s just a shaggy dog story, but as Badgery warns on the first page: “My advice is to not waste your time with your red pen, to try to pull apart the strands of lies and truth, but to relax and enjoy the show.”
Illywhacker is a great, garrulous, tottering tower of a novel, which is much better than it has any right to be. Oscar and Lucinda is probably the better book, being quite a bit more tightly plotted, but both of them are brilliant: wonderfully written Australian adventures full of odd characters, magical landscapes and Peter Carey’s unique, beautiful prose. Illywhacker is a gem.