A LONG WAY FROM HOME: A NOVEL
By Peter Carey
Knopf , $26.95, 318 pages
Who’d have thought that Australia is so like America? Just about our size, the nation down under boasts wide open spaces, white folk driving muscle cars, brown natives with opaque habits, and racism fierce enough to burn rubber. Only an Aussie expat would conjure up all that, a novelist who writes about his homeland from his home in New York City.
While the similarities are left for a critic to parse, the author himself, Peter Carey, twice winner of Britain’s Booker Prize, made a telling statement at Politics & Prose last month. He said “A Long Way from Home” is an atonement for his neglect of the guilty secret gnawing at Australia’s national conscience. That cross-to-bear, he explained, is the Aboriginal Matter: The persecution, murder and perennial subjugation of indigenous people who inhabited the land for millennia before Englishmen arrived and took over. Sound familiar?
In its chronic bigotry toward “abos,” Australia focused on one people the animus that America aimed at different groups in turn: First Indians, then Negroes, then the waves of immigrants of varicolored complexions and various faiths: The Irish, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Russians, Jews, Asians, Muslims; the list goes on.
Yet there is another similarity here: As America’s so-called “Indians” were actually a legion of distinct nations representing 200 language groups, so too Australia’s “Aborigines” were not a monolithic people but a potpourri of distinct, rich cultures. That being as it was, the arrivistes came with iron and gunpowder, so of course they came out on top.
In his talk, Mr. Carey was loath to give away the book’s pivotal surprise; likewise, look for no spoiler here. But it bears mention that this novel begins on a fabulously false note, which brings to mind another comparison. Remember the hysterically funny opening tale of a wannabe novelist embarking on adulthood in tony New York whose narrative morphs into the darkest tragedy of “Sophie’s Choice.” As William Styron seduced readers with callow Stingo’s picaresque romp, Mr. Carey begins his moral odyssey comically and packs it all in an epic car race.
The Redex Trial in 1954 was a monster competition, a circumnavigation of Australia, a 10,000-mile counterclockwise chase from Sydney to Sydney. As patriotic as the Tour de France, as high-octane as the Indy 500, it captivated all Australia. The Redex lasted for three weeks, along the worst roads in the industrialized world, and through the gamut of environments from rainforest to desert.
Mr. Carey’s heroic hopefuls are the husband-wife team of diminutive Titch and Irene Bobs, drivers as English as toffee, and their navigator, Willie Bachhuber The beanpole towhead son of a German preacher suspected of a heinous past, Willie is a gifted teacher recently fired from a school for hanging a white punk out of a window by his heels in a fit of excessive but justifiable discipline.
“It would later be alleged that I had refused to haul Bennett Ash back to safety until he promised not to breed. This was never true,” Willie attests. “Bennett lived in a world where the truth would die of thirst.”
The Bobs and Willie are George and Gracie, Mutt and Jeff, Fred and Ginger on wheels — our darlings all the way as the Redex unfolds in alternating chapters told in the first person by Irene and Willie. It is madcappery, this quixotic expedition with Titch playing the Don, and Irene as Dulcinea, and unforgettable Willie as Sancho Panza; may he live as long as the Spanish squire. They enter the race as a publicity stunt to win their holy grail of a car dealership; the trek is a branding exercise for this white blue-collar couple bent on bettering themselves.
Their odyssey traverses places with names like Nullarbor Plain, Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. The trek is a primer in the Australian lexicon: “jila” (a desert spring), “kartiva” (aka whitefellah as opposed to blackfellah); “reffo” (a refugee); “Balts” (Nordic immigrants from the Baltic); “willy-willy” (a whirlwind of dust). Sometimes the sentences beggar Yankee understanding, as in “He still judged me weak as water, a boong-lover, a half-caste if not quite a poofter, but he was impressed that I had not yet gone mad or spat the dummy” — meaning to throw a tantrum as a “dummy” is a baby’s pacifier in this argot.
The narrative is a songline: “One hundred and twenty-one years ago, before the sheep arrived, before the factories, these volcanic plains had been covered with ‘luxuriant herbage shoulder high and thick as oats.’ The black skinned hunter-gatherers were unaware that the whites planned to stay forever. None amongst then could credit that a human being might ‘own’ an animal, particularly one as tasty as a sheep. Or that the sheep would eat everything that attracted the kangaroo and the wallaby. And so on.”
In circling Australia, Mr. Carey portrays a place as schizophrenic as America, and as perpetually promising. There are no rose-colored glasses here, no excusing the mass murders, daily insults, and systematic bigotry as rabid as our KKK and cruel as lynchings. But there is a kind of hope. “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.”
• Philip Kopper is the author of “The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians.”