MOST OF US, if we think about it, have more precise ideas about what Hell is like than the other place. It is ourselves; a night in August when the air conditioning breaks down; cocktail parties; the Bronx; war--the long list is both profound and banal. We approach Heaven more cautiously. It may well be heavenly to eat a chocolate sundae, but contemplating an eternity of slurping confectionery is another thing. Heaven is paradoxically the place of negatives--no disease, no pain, no naughtiness--while Hell tends to be the vivid, highly-colored place, well-illuminated by the eternal fires, populated with interesting people, that captures the imagination. In Bliss, his second book, the Australian novelist Peter Carey describes both places, and Hell is again the more memorable.
Harry Joy, the central character in Bliss, is a partner in an advertising agency in a subtropical Australian town. His wife, Bettina, who cultivates everything American including running the only household in the town that serves iced water with meals, feels that she has the talent to do a better job than Harry. Harry is "a man with an almost aristocratic disdain for mercantile success. . . . His great talent in life was to be a Good Bloke. He could walk into a room and sit down and everybody would be happy to have him, even if all he ever did was smile. . . . It all came down to the feeling that he was intelligent enough to be critical of you, but was not."
Harry is happy enough with his life, but a heart attack at the age of 39 ends his contentment. Lying stricken on his lawn, he is aware of leaving his body below and entering another world. This experience reveals unequivocally to him the existence of both a Heaven and a Hell, and affirms the importance of leading a good life. Harry is revived and undergoes heart surgery, but he is a changed man. He cannot be certain that he has not really died and is now indeed in some kind of Hell populated by Captives, Actors and Those in Charge.
He keeps a notebook to record his evidence, which he is appalled to discover is abundant. His children are involved with drugs and sexually with each other, his wife is having an affair with his young American partner, and his business clients have knowingly suppressed a Cancer Map that traces the correlation between the incidence of the disease and their manufacture of chemicals containing carcinogens.
Harry, in his determination to do good, angers his wife, his family and his associates. He meets Honey Barbara, down from the country on her annual visit to make money for her commune as one of the all-too-available services provided by the "Executive Escort Agency." She alone, with her belief in the virtues of honey and pure foods, and her horror of the city, understands Harry's dilemma. They become lovers, and manage to combine business with pleasure by charging it all to Diners Card. But this idyll is shattered when his family, outraged by his behavior, commits him to a mental hospital.
Harry is able to buy his way out, but freedom is no less painful. A macabre incident, as violent and catastrophic as his first death, frees Harry Joy at last from this Hell, and he is able to spend the rest of his long life with Honey Barbara in her commune, a place--or so we are asked to believe--totally unlike the Hell of which he has been part.
Harry Joy's Hell is more than the cruel and greedy behavior of people. It is also where they exist: cities full of population, impersonal, air-conditioned hotels, sapping humid weather and unhealthy wet seasons that produce food too water-logged to have any flavor, derelict cars on front lawns, cancer in epidemic proportions and houses whose "timbers are saturated with the ultrasonic hiss of television." A bleak contemporary landscape more universal than Australian and tellingly described by Carey.
Carey is a writer of power and imagination. Harry Joy's descent into Hell and his trip back is a masterful amalgam of black humor, satire, perceptive observation and empathy for Harry, his damned family and his friends. But Carey has also written a book that in its evocation of Heaven and Hell relies on rather trendy answers to the fundamental questions of good and evil. Having so vividly described Harry Joy's anguish on returning from the dead, Carey disappoints us, in this book of serious intent, by portraying Heaven once more as a place of negatives--a pallid, goody-goody place of less than universal appeal whose inhabitants do not like cities, conventional religion nor meat on the dinner table. The people of Honey Barbara's commune while away their time in tasks of repetitious simplicity like digging holes, planting trees and telling stories around the fire.
If Heaven seems rather dull, Hell is surely more than the product of unconscionable collusion between businessmen, ad agencies and Americans. Regrettably, the Hell that most of us know first-hand festers within us, generated by our own impulses and disappointments, and following us the length of our days from culture to counterculture. Carey's Bliss has all the virtues of a modern fable and all its vices, but he is nevertheless a writer of im