Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home a journey to his childhood
GEORDIE WILLIAMSON, The Australian
In the European imagination, Australia was on the map long before it was a geographic reality. Terra Australis Incognita was the imagined counterweight to the northern hemisphere landmasses, a grey plate plonked at the bottom of cartographers’ efforts centuries before Dirk Hartog nailed his up at Shark Bay. Even when Europeans arrived in Australia, they acceded to this prefabricated idea: superimposing imported placenames and laying down arbitrary internal borders, ruler-straight for thousands of kilometres, over an immemorial atlas created by 500 clan groups or “nations”, whose traditional lands were delineated by boundaries that had nothing to do with bureaucratic fiat.
Peter Carey’s latest fiction is, on its surface, a historical novel in thrall to the time and texture of the author’s childhood in small-town Victoria during the 1940s and 50s, when only a few scattered anthropologists, archeologists and sundry Lutheran missionaries were growing aware of the deep history of Australia’s original inhabitants. For White Australia, only the pink bits of empire on the map needed to be learned.
Carey returns us to an era of backyard chickens and syrup puddings. As a vision of rural Victoria, it has all the Proustian reclamation of things past that marks Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row or Hal Porter’s Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony. After several novels by Carey set elsewhere in the world, or in the urban near-present, A Long Way From Home is animated by the delighted shock of homecoming.
But even the settled world Carey summons is changing. The war’s long shadow has passed and prosperity beckons. Along with transistor radios, the family automobile is the most potent catalyst for change. Cars collapse distance, provide independence for young people and women, and their steady uptake means employment for the entrepreneurial.
Titch Bobs, for example, the finest automotive salesman in country Victoria. An impeccable, trim, decent man built on a compact scale, just over 5 feet tall. His flaw is a reverence for his father that is impervious to the fact “dangerous” Dan Bobs is a vicious scoundrel. He also tends to believe his own sales patter.
It’s up to his attractive, equally diminutive wife, Irene, to keep him tethered. She’s smart, earthy, kind, yet eminently pragmatic, descending to subterfuge on occasion to keep their dream of a car dealership alive. The problem lies in Titch’s tribal fealty to Ford. Ford is reluctant to grant him a dealership, despite his sales record, especially since his father set up a second-hand car business nearby under the Bobs name. The organisation willing to give him his own yard is newcomer General Motors Holden.
To sweeten the pill of this shift in allegiance, Irene accepts Titch’s mad request that, ahead of opening the new business, they enter the Redex Australia Trial, a high-profile endurance race in which ordinary cars are slathered with advertising and driven across rough roads and inhospitable landscapes while circumnavigating the continent. Holden — in the person of manipulative and lecherous middle manager Dunstan, who takes Titch under his creepy wing — is happy to furnish a new model for them to drive.
The third member to join the trial crew is the Bobses’ neighbour, Willie Bachhuber. The offer is partly made over the fence out of pity — Willie, scion of Hahndorf Germans, is a fallen man, after all: a disgraced teacher, deadbeat dad and former radio quiz show king. He is sensitive, intelligent, cultured and tormented, in flight from his past and a sense of being unmoored in the world. But he is also a map obsessive, as careful in his calculations of time and distance as he is slatternly in his housekeeping, so an ideal navigator for the race.
What follows is neither a road trip nor a state-of-the-nation novel. Instead, it is a domestic drama on wheels, an inquiry into the metaphysics of race, and an antic vehicle for Carey’s inimitable and lacerating wit. The view of the country we get consists of glimpses through the bulldust and windscreen glare.
Readers, though, should never underestimate how much charge and meaning Carey may invest in a single image — say, the Bacchus Marsh war memorial:
No-one ever came to the Marsh without thinking, what a pretty town. It was a secret, almost, tucked down at the bottom of Anthony’s Cutting. If there is a prettier war memorial than our Avenue of Honour, I never heard of it. Every tree in the avenue was planted for a local boy who died. Every trunk had its own name. The dead boys are now huge elms and they join together above the road and give a very calm impression. This is how you enter the town. You drive beneath them, up the aisle, beside the apple orchards, the shire offices, the lawn bowls games in progress. You can dawdle through the wide streets and get some glimpse of our boring life. You will find no more exciting noise than the ding-ding of the blacksmith’s hammer.
Thinking back to the bright, lacquered postmodernism of Carey’s early short stories, the quiet realism of these sentences is shocking. Yet the same vernacular verve is in evidence, it’s just more nostalgically arrayed. The same ricochet method of imagistic association is employed, only to subtler, more scathing or tender ends.
The narrative voice here belongs to Irene Bobs. It is a task she swaps, chapter in, chapter out, with Willie. Each voice contrasts yet complements the other. And each perspective illuminates something hidden or unsuspected about the pair. Willie allows the author to pander to his magpie interests and intellectual curiosity; it lets him sing the sad-sack bloke blues. Irene obliges Carey to undercut these masculine indulgences — she is less educated but a much more composed person. The affection that develops between the two as they compete is ambiguous yet stainless. That does not stop Titch from a jealous rage that throws the fragile equilibrium of the triangle out of whack.
It would spoil too much that is significant in the latter parts of the novel to say more. What is clear, though, is that Willie and Irene intuit that there are other maps that underlay the one that marks the Redex route: maps of murder, of dispossession. Their encounters with indigenous Australians are tragic, comic and banal. Willie, in particular, is obliged into a profound re-accommodation with the indigenous Australians he meets. These sections of the story, which some may regard as politically fraught, are handled with a simple care that is impressive, at variance to Carey’s usual flaunting of style and smarts. This is the first time he has dedicated himself to indigenous Australia in fiction. He says he has been wary of doing so since he heard activist Gary Foley tell an audience White Australia should leave black narratives alone. Foley has a point, but A Long Way From Home reminds us that great novels are not ideological — neither exploitative nor excessively well-meaning — but tough-minded, complex admissions of failure, guilt and confusion. A Lutheran pastor says as much to Irene:
“There is no right thing,” the old man said, “there are just many, many wrong things and sometimes we can do no better than pray to be forgiven.”
Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief literary critic.
A Long Way From Home
By Peter Carey
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, $39.99 (HB),