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Satisfying bunch of five

7 November 2011 1,712 views No Comment

THESE five novels (several of them illustrated), among the latest offerings from Arcadia’s Press On series, are all by long-established authors whose careers have taken very different paths, yet who now find themselves in each other’s company in these attractively packaged and priced books. In order of seniority, the writers are Morris Lurie, Peter Corris, Michael Wilding, Ross Fitzgerald (whose book is co- authored with Trevor Jordan) and Garry Disher.
All of them work in a vein that has yielded some of their most popular fiction, although Corris gives us a historical novel (as he has before) rather than more Cliff Hardy, Disher an intense domestic drama rather than crime. From Lurie we have a characteristically staccato and melancholy comedy of Jewish misadventures in Melbourne; from Wilding, another of his paranoia- drenched satires of academia and espionage.

Fitzgerald and Jordan (who also collaborated with ‘Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia’) offer a raucous comedy of public, private and political life in the state that they call Mangoland.

Eight of Corris’s more than 60 works of fiction have been set in the past. The Colonial Queen is a shapely murder mystery set in 1886 which gathers its cast on a Murray River paddle-steamer of that name as it journeys downriver towards Adelaide. A number of Corris’s
interests are on show. One of the passengers is a boxer (Corris has written a history of prize-fighting in Australia, Lords of the Ring), ”Stoney” Stoneham (the novel can’t make up its mind whether his first name is Sydney or Stanley) who has been reduced to fighting in exhibition bouts after being jailed for manslaughter in an illegal bout. This is also a crime story, whose context is the anxiety of police that no more bushranger heroes should follow
the Kellys into public sympathy. A resourceful whore and her ne’er-do-well brother are also on board, together with a smart newspaperman and a drunken Scottish doctor. Corris keeps the show rollicking on, but it feels like the work of his left hand.! Lurie’s first, and perhaps still greatest, success was his novel Rappaport (1966). Since then he has written prolifically – more novels (most recently the poignant To Light Attained, 2010), short stories (numbers of them first published in magazines overseas), books for children. In Hergesheimer Hangs In, the protagonist is a writer of such material as the above, who has enjoyed middling success. His work is fitted into a hectic round of eating with old friends, jogging in the Botanic Gardens, enduring the demands and ingratitude of family members. A good deal of what we are given here – characters, events – is familiar from Lurie’s earlier writing. In common also is that tone of jaunty indomitability that scarcely masks despair.

Fitzgerald and Jordan’s ‘Fools’ Paradise’ reintroduces Grafton Everest, Professor of LifeSkills and Hospitality at the University of Mangoland and – to the envy of his colleagues – a radio and television pundit as well, whose daily exhortation is ”Wake up, Australia”. In the world to which his audience wakes, security services and universities are being privatised: most of the state’s resources (reefs, beaches, rainforest – that sort of thing) are being sold to the autocratic and kleptocratic Asian country of Kelemping; the current premier is being blackmailed and his fundamentalist Christian predecessor, Sir Otis Hoogstraden, has coerced Everest into writing his biography. There’s lots more in this exuberant, but dishevelled, satirical performance.

The parlous state of Australia’s universities (especially in what long ago used to be called their arts faculties) continues to exercise Michael Wilding, for long our finest (but no longer our only) practitioner of the campus, or perhaps that should be anti-campus, novel. He’s back in form with The Magic of It, the usual ingredients this time being mixed with panache. We again encounter the supposed ubiquity of spying in Australia, the wretched sell-out of our tertiary institutions, the stench of betrayal around human and professional relationships. Journalist and private investigator Keith Plant is back to find the culprit in death threats against Professor Archer Major, purportedly an academic authority on magic, who perhaps has his own sinister uses for it. Wilding gleefully and adroitly moves Plant from Sydney to Oxford on the trail. Satisfying entertainment is there for all. The most ambitious and accomplished of these five novels is Garry Disher’s Play Abandoned. It involves the social comedy generated when families from rural South Australia translate themselves to a beachside suburb of Adelaide for their summer holidays. But this is also a lost child, or children story, centred on the grieving Marian Parr (a former academic – Disher’s is the most acrid and incisive of the three treatments of the moral decay of university life considered here). It is through her acute eyes that the relationships of the characters – more exposed and fragile when away from home – are scrutinised: between mother and daughter, wife and mother-in-law, husband and wife. There is plenty of rough humour, especially to do with shonky performers at a writers’ festival, but the abiding impression of the novel is its probing of pain and solitariness.

Peter Pierce is editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. The Canberra Times, 5 November 2011

THE COLONIAL QUEEN. By Peter Corris. Arcadia. 285pp. $24.95. HERGESHEIMER HANGS IN. By Morris Lurie. Arcadia. 209pp. $24.95. FOOLS’ PARADISE. By Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan. Arcadia. 233pp. $24.95. THE MAGIC OF IT. By Michael Wilding. Arcadia. 344pp. $24.95. PLAY ABANDONED. By Garry Disher. Arcadia. 260pp. $24.95.