The Bulletin, 16 July 1985
Illywhacker is such an astonishing novel, of such major proportions, that before saying anything else one must record gratitude for its existence.
Often the epigraphs to books are a bit fancy, suggesting a deficiency in the book; they are like the host who gives the arriving guest a double whisky as an agent to numb ensuing boredom. Not so with Carey’s two epigraphs. The first from Mark Twain after his visit to Australia in he 1890s, suggests that Australian history “does not read like history but like the most beautiful lies; all such a fresh new sort, not moldy old stale ones.” The second gives G. A. Wilkes’ definition of illywhacker: “A professional trickster, esp. operating at country shows.”
Prepare, then, for lies and trickeries. But there are immediate paradoxes, such as the opening sentence: “My name is Herbert Badgery. I am a hundred and thirty nine years old and something of a celebrity.” Badgery, while admitting to be a terrible liar, says “my age is the one fact you can rely on.” This great age is from a further dimension into the future, as the action of the book takes place within the 60-odd years from 1919.
Carey is secure from one sort of reviews’ ill-treatment. No one could tell the story in less than the 600 pages of the novel. This does not mean that Illywhacker is obscure or contorted, only that its story is a spider-web that cannot be unpicked. The hundreds of episodes of the novel (there are no conventional chapters) are like Badgery’s description of his children: “Spawned by lies, suckled on dreams, infested with dragons, my children could never have been normal, only extraordinary.”
But don’t fear. Carey knows all about normality, he solid and recognizable. As a dancer needs a firm stage, so the boards and the joists and nails under the somersaults ofIllywhacker are not only solid but put together by a master craftsman. It is this combination of lyrical imagination and the reality of touched things that givesIllywhacker its extraordinary range and power.
Anyone who grew up in the 1920s or 30s (Carey was not even born then), who can fly an aeroplane, who has pulled down a motor-bike, stretched wires on a fence, held a snake or a budgie in the hands, looked a goanna in the eye, been in prison, made love or felt lie suicide will find out that Carey, in imagination or reality, has been there, done that, but emerged to make it new again. Illywhacker is the most modern of novels, not because of a shake-out from the Hessian bag of technical tricks but because it is so new. And not new and shiny without any dents but new like a sunlit day which, although glowing, is full of dark secrets, snakes under stones.
Carey’s original title for Illywhacker was Pets. Both Herbert and Charles keep snakes, although their attitudes to the reptiles are quite different. Gentle Charles would never have used a poisonous snake to scare the conceit out of an imaginary Englishman, as Badgery calls those who for so many year were bred that way in Australia. And it is Charles’ dangerous son Hissao who, smuggling the rarest of rare parrots inside his trousers on a Qantas flight to Rome, feels it crushed to death by the pelvis of the passionate Italian woman from the next seat. Charles, having established his fantastic, vast pet shop in George Street is racked with guilt when his wife Emma takes the children to live with her in a cage. One of the many messages of the book is that pets are not free but people long to be pets. Australians in particular make good pets. “ ‘I would say,” I told him, ‘that we Australians are a timid people who have no faith in themselves.’ “
Thanks to Carey, we can unlock some of the doors of our cages.
Geoffrey Dutton was born in Kapunda, South Australia in 1922 and died in September 1998. A vital force in Australian literary life, he wrote or edited over 200 books, including poetry, fiction, biographies, art appreciation, art and literary history, travel books, novels for children and critical essays. He published Peter Carey’s first short story in his quartlery Australian Letters.