Monday, April 09, 2012

the last book I read

The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey.

So here's another motley collection of larrikins and galahs, then - the Catchprices. On the surface the shambolic proprietors of a car dealership in the fictional Sydney suburb of Franklin, beneath the surface there's something a bit weirder going on. Elderly matriarch Frieda nominally owns the business, but she's getting a bit scatty these days so most of the day-to-day running is done by her son Mort and her daughter Cathy, with assistance from Cathy's husband Howie and Mort's son Benny.

Everyone has their own dreams of escape - Cathy is an aspiring country singer, Benny listens obsessively to Paul McKenna-esque self-actualisation tapes and imagines himself being transformed into an angel (possibly of the avenging variety). A couple of the Catchprice clan have managed to get away, in varying ways - Benny's elder brother Johnny has joined a Hare Krishna group and transformed himself into Vishnabarnu, while Mort and Cathy's brother Jack has become a wealthy property developer.

Into all this comes Maria Takis, eight months pregnant and tasked with conducting an audit of the business for the Tax Office. There seems to be a general view among the Catchprice family that this spells doom, based on their inside knowledge of all the various dodges, fiddling and general incompetence that's gone on over the years. So they try various tacks to convince Maria to abandon things, starting with some slightly creepy stalking courtesy of Benny, and followed up by Jack's slightly more orthodox powers of persuasion.

It turns out that Maria's finely tuned moral compass means that she's not that interested in hunting down small-scale crookedness like what's been going on at Catchprice Motors, and more interested in bringing down the tax dodgers among the privileged elite - the very same circles that Jack Catchprice moves in, as it happens. As if that wasn't complication enough, Jack and Maria start to conduct a romance.

The reader shouldn't get the idea that the Catchprices are just a bunch of lovable oafs, though, as there's a darker side that soon becomes visible - the legacy of father/son sexual abuse passed down from Frieda's late husband Cacka to Mort to Benny, Benny's dark obsessions nurtured in his dank basement room, and Frieda's habit of carrying round lumps of sweating gelignite in her handbag. When Frieda decides to deploy the contents of her handbag to rid herself of the burden of Catchprice Motors once and for all (as well as destroying any auditable evidence), and Benny simultaneously decides to move his stalking of Maria Takis to the next level by "inviting" her to pay a visit to his basement room, the stage is set for a quite lidderally "explosive" finale.

I should start by saying that this is the second Peter Carey book I've read, the first being the 1988 Booker Prize winner Oscar and Lucinda. I found that one to be a long and only intermittently rewarding slog, to be honest, so it's perhaps not surprising that I think this one is a lot better, not least because it's barely half as long. That's not to say I was totally blown away by it, though - the cast of grotesques and caricatures are a bit difficult fully to believe in or care about, with the exception of Maria and Jack, whose sweet romantic interludes are a bit incongruous in comparison. And the ending where Benny and Maria and Maria's now-imminent baby have a life-or-death struggle in Benny's porn dungeon while Catchprice Motors collapses into rubble around their ears is all a bit of an eleventh-hour swerve into Silence of The Lambs territory.

So, you know, it's fine, but if it's Australian fiction you're after I'd say you might be better off with Tim Winton, Patrick White or Thomas Keneally.

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