ILLYWHACKER. By Peter Carey. Harper & Row. 600 pp. $18.95.
THE COMIC NOVEL these days is no laughing matter. As the world seems ever more menacing and less comprehensible, fiction's central characters shrivel accordingly. Too often they are bland, feckless, both or worse -- e.g., the pathetic wimp of Bright Lights, Big City; and the "comedy" derives from watching those sensitive but spunkless entities get squashed like bugs on the windshield of life. And too often the humor is fueled by mere hostility (Heartburn et al.), the tone shrill, the aftertaste sour.
The grander comic vision, from Rabelais to Dickens, Huckleberry Finn to Garp, is ultimately compassionate, its protagonists worth our sympathy, its purport auspicious. It gives our vanities and failings a wholesome thrashing, but in the end refreshes our sense of human possibility. Such books are rare and valuable, particularly in this lugubrious era. And such a book is Illywhacker, Peter Carey's huge and hugely rewarding second novel.
The title is Australian slang for "confidence man." The man is Herbert Badgery, hero, narrator and madcap patriarch. The con is exquisite: For sheer melodious deceit, Badgery makes W.C. Fields look like Beaver Cleaver. "Lying is my subject, my speciality, my skill" -- and his perennial means of survival as ill fate or public outrage drive him from place to place in this exotic picaresque that sprawls across 60 years and three generations of Badgery's eccentric and cunning tribe. He is 139 years old as he begins his life story, and is in no hurry. It will take a quarter of a million words to contain two wives and a mattress-load of consorts; scams aplenty and stints as a carnival performer, aviator, snake- handler, salesman of Model Ts (which he loves for their efficiency and loathes for their foreign origin); surreal vignettes and digressions by the dozen; 10 years in prison for stealing from the mysterious Chinaman who teaches him to become invisible; scores of cameoed characters from florid to doughty to dumb. Not to mention the other principals:
His wife, Phoebe McGrath of Geelong, a headstrong bisexual beauty and soi-disant poet who yearns to fly from her uncultured family to preen like a parrot among the smart set. Perceiving an escape in Badgery -- whose airplane crash-lands into a family picnic -- she lets him woo her by rooftop fornication (until gravity intervenes), then proves his equal at duplicity.
His lover, Leah Goldstein, medical student turned road-show snake-dancer, whom Badgery meets on a river bank. (He is panning for gold; she is masquerading as an emu. Such is Illywhacker.) Racked between nobility of purpose and self-indulgence, she marries communist firebrand Izzie Kaletsky, leaves him for dancing, rejoins him and the cause, re-exits to become a hack writer, and so on -- forever shuttling between the poles of her soul.
Charles Badgery, Herbert's son, who proves as adept at cozening animals as his father is with people. Despite a few hardships (his wife, Emma, lives in a cage; his son Hissao unaccountably seems to be a full-blooded Japanese), he creates the family fortune with "the world's greatest pet shop."
And yet still more: Carey rarely lets a minor character remain minor. Thus the McGrath clan and its history are limned in lavish particular, from mother Molly (daughter and granddaughter of suicides, she is kept sane only by wearing a battery-operated "electric invigorator belt") to her maniacally enthusiastic father Jack, made rich by decades as a bullock-driver, whose jerry-rigged "improvements" to his vintage Victorian house are a neighborhood scandal. Ditto for the decorous Goldsteins, the squabbling Kaletskys, etc. All are portrayed with such affection for their foibles and fantasies and such rich descriptive detail that the novel's world achieves the kind of depth and texture found in Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude.
This scope is a function of Badgery's itinerant proclivities. An obsessive nest-builder who wants nothing more than "a place in this rotten lonely world," he is forever erecting dwellings, only to vacate them on the lam. "I was an expert, however, at getting 'put up' " -- which he accomplishes with an adjustable amalgam of charm, sexual allure, formidable wile and plain utility.
The last is essential. Traditionally, the con man in literature, from Tartuffe to Melville's deaf-mute to Twain's mysterious stranger, serves to darken our view of human nature. But Badgery is an ethical impostor ("I delivered value in whatever way was required") who regards himself as evil and keeps trying to make amends, however ineffectual. After persuading a farmer to buy a Ford, he is stricken by conscience and refuses to sell it, urging the gent to buy an Australian model instead: "You'd be better off with a worse car if the money stayed here." Whereupon the offended rustic tries to kill him with a poker. "It was the trouble with the world that it would never permit me to be what I was," he reflects. "Everyone loved me when I appeared in a cloak, and swirled and laughed and told outrageous lies . . . But when I took off my cloak they did not like me."
NO WONDER: Badgery's elegant deceptions -- like the ephemeral jingoisms and pop moral nostrums by which we live, the author suggests -- have a magical tonic effect on their audience. Carey's vision is relentlessly ironic, and it is his genius to acknowledge that the same lies which distort our lives also enrich them, fueling our dreams, stoking our resolve and getting the world's work done even if for deranged reasons.
At one point, forced by suspicious burghers to explain his presence in a town, Badgery cobbles together the hasty excuse that he is planning a factory to build the first Australian airplane. To his amazement, the idea ignites the townsmen's ardor. And his, as well: "I had never been in a situation before where my lies looked so likely to become true . . . So many people contributed creamy coats of credibility to my untruth that the nasty speck of grit was fast becoming a beautiful thing, a lustrous pearl it was impossible not to covet." The novel provides a broad catalogue of such inflammatory delusions, from hilarious to pathetic. And it suggests that nations are subject to the same syndrome. "Australian history," says the epigraph from Twain, "does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies . . . but they are all true, they all happened."
Carey is no stranger to such themes. Prior to Illywhacker the 42-year-old former ad- man who lives near Sydney was chiefly known as a fabulist. His 1980 collection, The Fat Man in History and Other Stories, less than auspiciously received, features topical satire in experimental and science-fiction forms. And in his promising first novel, Bliss (1981), an advertising executive survives a heart attack only to conclude -- from the corporate wickedness and middle-class banality of his life -- that he has gone to hell. He flees for the "heaven" of a bucolic commune and a sylph named Honey Barbara.
The new novel, too, has an ample metaphorical heft. Themes of appearance and reality are accentuated by images of skin; aspirations and delusions alike find counterparts in persistent references to birds. Moreover, the elder Badgery's history serves as a sort of synecdoche for Australia's evolution. He dates his spiritual birth from a ferocious beating administered by his father, whom he fled in 1895 to become a Melbourne street urchin. (Australia's constitution was drafted in 1897-98; it became a commonwealth in 1900.) Similarly, his financial condition -- like Australia's, Carey implies -- is invariably determined by some foreign power: first by the British (his father, who masqueraded as an Englishman, worked for a British cannon company), then Americans (Ford Motors, as well as the Yankee hustler who becomes Charles' partner in the pet-export business). And finally by Japanese at the story's appalling surprise conclusion, in which Herbert's original dream of a native-owned enterprise free of colonial exploitation is realized with particularly vicious irony.
Those who make it to the climax will have had to excuse the author's occasional lapses. Carey is a vivid depictor (a magpie's cry sounds like "an angel gargling in a crystal vase"; Izzie speaks in quiet confidence "with a rhythm like soft erratic rain") whose style is never far from overkill, and he is capable of protracted redundancies and sloppy repetitions of unusual words like "verdigris" and "singlet." And though his control of plot is usually masterful, the structure starts to wobble toward the end. Major figures such as Izzie's mother disappear in a single sentence after chapters of attention; yet new characters (notably a superfluous Chinese named Mr. Lo) are introduced to no visible purpose. But given the awesome breadth, ambition and downright narrative joy of this book, these are quibbles. Illywhacker is a triumph.