New York Times Book Review, 17 November 1985
Are we to read these 600 pages of sprawling invention as an allegory of modern Australia? Yes, and then again, no. Peter Carey’s previous novel, “Bliss,” was an engagingly unappetizing story of rank passions and seedy hopes in an unnamed place suspiciously like Brisbane, only clammier and even more of a remote outpost of American colonialism if that’s possible. Written with enormous verve and malice and only halfheartedly prepared to toy with the notion of salvation through dourness, “Bliss” left one wondering what its author might achieve with less distaste and more ambition.
Now one knows. With “Illywhacker” (a finalist for this year’s Booker Prize in Britain), Mr. Carey shows he can spin a yarn with the best of them. It’s a big, garrulous, funny novel, touching, farcical and passionately bad tempered. It begins arbitrarily in 1919 as Annette Davidson, who trained in Reading, England, to be a teacher, finds herself earning her living at the Hermitage Church of England girls Grammar School in Geelong, Australia. In between she stopped off in Paris, where she had an affair with an obscure impressionist, Jacques Dussoir. In 1946 she will publish a book about her few months in Paris and say nothing about the 28 years in her reluctantly adopted country.
But Annette Davidson’s story is just the fist to be told by the narrator, Herbert Badgery, an Illywhacker – that is, a trickster or con man – aged 139, give or take the odd half-century. By the time he has told his tale and brought us to the present., Francophilia has given way to whatever the word is for being dependent on the Japanese, and the dreamy reminiscence of Paris nights, 13,000 miles away, has become Robert Hawke-speak, the language of supersalesmanship and the current Australian Prime Minister.
I feared initially that Mr. Carey might have ditched distemper rather too unreservedly in favor of teeming life, miraculous incident, marvels, dragons, myths and an incorrigibly untrustworthy narrator whose fabulosity mirrors that of the Artist himself. He uses all the paraphernalia of that creaking movement known as magic realism, the literature of wonder, which writers who aren’t South American (and even some who are) manage very badly. There is a strong whiff of this, a laboriousness of invention sometimes, an overfertility of metaphor, one dragon and one traveling Australian illusionist too many.
Yet reading “Illywhacker” is not unlike spending a week in the company of the best kind of Australian. The stories keep coming, told with deceptive guilelessness and innocence. The talk is bawdy, the jokes are throw away and rank, the sex is avid but democratic. Withal there is that haunting nostalgia and desolation that seems to be the immutable condition of the country. If you haven’t been to Australia, read “Illywhacker.” It will give you the feel of it like nothing else I know.
Howard Jacobson is a British novelist, broadcaster and columnist. His novels include Coming From Behind Peeping Tom, Redback, , The Very Model of a Man, No More Mister Nice Guy, Cape, The Mighty Walzer, Cape, Who’s Sorry Now, Cape, The Making of Henry, Cape, Kalooki Nights