Victoria Glendinning, The Times (London), September 5, 1991
Peter Carey won the Booker Prize in 1988 with Oscar and Lucinda. His new novel is shorter, braver, more painful, and even better. It touches on all the social and sexual pathology that hits the headlines urban decay, delinquency, family breakdown, Aids, child abuse and remains witty and unpretentious.
The Tax Inspector is also a lament for the ruination of Sydney, one of the great cities of the world. Writing as a passionate insider, Carey documents the crassly insensitive motorways, the lost pathways, the mindless suburban sprawl, the corruption in high places and the desperate lives of one marginalised family. ”Youcan read a city. You can see who’s winning and who’s losing,” says Jack Catchprice, developer and wheeler-dealer. Jack is, in the world’s terms, winning. He’s the only member of his family who is.
The Catchprices are losers. They run a seedy General Motors franchise and service station in the by-passed section of what was once a country town and is now a blighted ”region” of 160,000 people. Grandfather Catchprice sold combine-harvesters and baling-twine to a farming community. But grandfather was instrumental in the changes that made the family redundant, ”creatures at the end of an epoch”.
To make the garage forecourt he poured concrete over good soil like smothering a baby, says gran, now an intransigent octogenarian with a Marlboro stuck on her lip and mastectomy scars ”like plastic sandwich wrappers”. She lives on the premises, as do her children and grandchildren, in a warren of makeshift apartments, amid radiator hoses, fan belts, oil, grease and petrol vapour. Their view is of two Esso petrol pumps and a cluster of used cars. Benny, aged 16, has his lair in the filthy, waterlogged cellar. The garage is utterly real, with its dirty stucco, its stinks and stains, shelves of spare parts and peeling plywood doors. It is also surreal a dream factory.
”We can realise our dreams,” insists Benny, delinquent and grossly disturbed, busy transforming himself into an angel by means of ”self-actualisation” cassette tapes. Carey’s characters survive on hope. Benny may well become an angel, though the odds are against it. His brother has opted for transcendence, too, and has become a Hare Krishna. His fat 46-year-old aunt, who runs the front office, is a country singer with high cowboy boots and her own backing group, and dreams of fame.
Carey does not patronise the Catchprices and makes it quite impossible for the reader to do so either. To say he has compassion implies some degree of condescension, and is an inadequate description of his unsentimental vision of them. Their idealised self-images and fantasies of escape and transformation, however funny or horrible, have status. ”If we can’t change we are dead,” says successful, corrupt Jack Catchprice.
The family’s weirdness would have remained hidden were it not for the nosiness of the tax inspector. She turns out to be an attractive, conscientious young woman who is heavily pregnant. Her efforts to get the Catchprices to open their books and reveal their business practices precipitates the revelation of other balance sheets and other practices. They have to show her, and each other, their secret lives. The tax inspector has her own story, but her point is her pregnancy. Benny and Jack both fall in love with her and her unborn, ”fatherless” baby. Male Catchprices have, down the generations, sexually abused their beloved children. The child victim becomes the monster father: ”They do not let you be the two at once”, though the victim and the monster are the same person.
Mothers can either turn a blind eye, as gran did (”I knew but I didn’t believe”), or walk out, as Benny’s mother did. Listening to the Catchprices, which means listening to Peter Carey, you understand how it happens, and how it goes on, and why the child-victim does not speak out. As Benny’s father says, thinking of his own father: ”If it had all come out, how could they understand he loved us?” It is not a good kind of love. The Catchprices are damaged goods.
This novel ends in a long and terrifying sequence of such mental and physical violence that one hesitates to recommend it to the tenderhearted. It involves a birth and a death in the smelly hell of Benny’s cellar. Yet Carey, while demonstrating that he is an artist in horror, which we did not know, never loses touch with his own tenderness.
He has a Manichean belief that everyone, even crazed Benny, has ”bits of angel” in him. To understand is not to forgive. It is, simply, to understand.
If you only have time to read one new novel this autumn, make it The Tax Inspector. I think, by the way, that the baby is going to be all right. For the moment.