Francine Prose, The New York Times.
Front Page Book Review, January 12, 1992,
WHEN the members of the Catchprice family aren’t savaging one another or plotting to commit mayhem, they’re sabotaging what little remains of their moribund business, a hellish auto dealership just outside Sydney, Australia. Light-years beyond the merely dysfunctional, they’re the Beverly Hillbillies on bad acid. The Catchprices are the sort of people you’d rather read about than spend time with, which is exactly the impulse Peter Carey plays on in his disturbing new novel. In “The Tax Inspector,” the Australian writer — whose previous books include “Illywhacker” and the Booker Prize-winning “Oscar & Lucinda” — chronicles four apocalyptic days of Catchprice domestic life and in doing so transforms the black hole these people call home into a dark mirror for the larger world outside.
Though the octogenarian Granny Catchprice suffers major memory lapses, she hasn’t forgotten what the explosives in her purse are for. Her middle-aged daughter, Cathy, fantasizes that her country band, Big Mack, will make her a star, bigger than her sleazy husband’s heroes, “all the losers of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Cathy’s elder brother, the furtive Mort, has been an attentive single father — and a conduit passing on damage from his own father to his two sons. Mort’s older boy, Johnny, a k a Vishnabarnu, has fled to a Hare Krishna ashram so antiseptic that living there feels like “being inside an egg.” Sixteen-year-old Benny is the ultimate victim of whatever’s gone wrong with the gene pool. Down in his fetid basement lair, Benny has peroxided, tattooed and depilated his body, and with the aid of a pricey set of “self-actualization” cassettes is fervidly remaking himself into an avenging angel. Only Jack Catchprice, Mort and Cathy’s brother, seems possessed of mental health; but then, he escaped from the family business a long time ago.
Accustomed to navigating the “currents of anger and fear which made life normal,” the Catchprices are thrown off course by the appearance of what we might consider an avenging angel — a representative of the tax department, initiating an audit. But little in this novel happens as one might predict; the inspector is not a paid agent of legal, punitive, whimsical malice but pregnant, unmarried Maria Takis, a pretty, softhearted woman with a steely moral sense.
TO summarize the novel’s characters or its twisted plot is to risk making the book sound simply cartoonish, quirky and grotesque, one given to smirky, easy jokes at its characters’ expense. (It’s hard to describe the plot at all without wrecking its many surprises.) In fact, there’s something extremely likable about all this, and especially about the way Mr. Carey gives the combative Catchprices great complexity and depth, so that the process of getting to know them is like eating an artichoke in reverse — with every layer added on, we’re that much closer to the heart.
Sudden revelations shock us and then come to seem inevitable as we find out what these characters have done and what they’ve suffered, what they once hoped for and what they actually got. Our notions of blame and sympathy change repeatedly and drastically with each new thing we’re told about them or observe on our own. So our view of Granny Catchprice takes on new, refractive edges as we learn about her dream of a flower farm, blighted early on, about her kindness and canniness, her terrible powers of denial. The intensity of Cathy’s tenderness for her repellent nephew, Benny, startles us almost as much as the horrifying truths we come to learn about Benny’s parents.
A galaxy of both appealing and repulsive figures surrounds the Catchprice clan, and there’s hardly anyone who isn’t humanized by occasional flashes of sweetness or who doesn’t secretly believe in the possibilities of personal transformation. Mr. Carey knows how to win us over to a character’s side; we’re charmed, for example, by Jack Catchprice’s hapless weakness for intelligent women. What saves Jack’s less attractive relatives is the heartbreaking contrast between what they are and what they imagine they can become. Who can fault poor Cathy for wanting to leave the family prison and sing to rooms full of men who, on hearing her voice, will think she’s prettier than she is? The more we know about Benny, the less we hold him responsible for his fanatic faith in himself as an embryonic angel.
And who can blame Maria Takis for seeing herself as a kind of Robin Hood bringing the tax cheat to justice and reclaiming fortunes that the rich have skimmed from what they rightfully owe the poor? Maria functions as the novel’s reality check, its moral (and initially moralistic) center. She provides the broader view and keeps things in perspective by removing us from the grisly scene of the Catchprice family drama: it’s Maria who rescues us from the airless bell jar they live in.
Through Maria, we come to understand that the unfortunate Catchprices are not the villains they might appear, only mere shadows of the pervasive deviousness and evil in the larger world outside their unhappy home. If we want to know who the real monsters are, Maria’s quite willing to show us — from the gangland bully who puts out a contract on Maria’s best friend to the rich art patrons giving a dinner party that turns out to be a lobbying effort meant to block legislation benefiting artists, legislation that would also make it harder for art collectors to hoodwink the tax department.
A densely plotted novel like “The Tax Inspector” requires a certain amount of narrative scaffolding, and there are readers (though not this one) who may be disturbed by the sound of creaking machinery — by that glimpse of gelignite being planted in Granny’s purse. In any case, this is one of those plot-driven novels that one stops reading solely for story and instead comes to value for its style and vision.
Peter Carey writes beautiful sentences, worked on but not labored; his descriptive passages sweep us along and leave us in some felicitous, unanticipated place. (“Those eyes were like gas jets in a rust-flaked pipe,” he tells us, introducing young Benny Catchprice. “They informed everything you felt about him, that he might, at any second, be ringed with heat — a peacock, something creepy.”) This pattern of mini-surprises followed by small, jarring pleasures prepares us, phrase by phrase, for the novel’s greater rewards — for its wit and density, its sympathy and wacky inventiveness and its exhortation to step farther back and see more.