What we want from two-time Booker winner Peter Carey is another propulsive Australian masterpiece like “True History of the Kelly Gang.” What we get is this opaque tale of spoiled affections and disinterred racism called “A Long Way From Home.”
Not that you’d know that from the novel’s jaunty opening or snazzy dust jacket. The early chapters, set in postwar Australia, feel like the setup for a rom-com road race. One of the novel’s two narrators is irrepressible Irene, wife of Titch Bobs, the greatest Ford salesman in rural Victoria. Irene adores him: “I was put on earth to love your tortured body and your impy joyous soul,” she croons. Together, Irene and Titch have ambitious plans to be Ford dealers outside of Melbourne, but they’re thwarted by Titch’s cruel father, Dangerous Dan Bobs, who has better connections in the auto industry.
Clearly, there’s some autobiographical trim here: Carey was born and raised in this area, where his parents owned a GM dealership. His re-creation of the Australian car market’s early cutthroat days offers a fun bit of Down Under history. And Carey has always had a great ear for the comedy of frustration, which he displays by ratcheting up the tension between Irene and her father-in-law until she can’t take it anymore.
Determined to get out from under the old man’s influence and make a name for themselves, Irene and Titch sign up for the 1954 Redex Trial. This competition — based on an actual event — isn’t a race so much as a weeks-long endurance test for contestants who putter across thousands of miles of Australia’s punishing landscape. “The rule book decreed that reliability was the only issue,” Irene notes. The Indy 500 this is not: Average speed is about 22 mph. Fuel is hard to find, repair shops even harder, and most of the roads are no better than desert trails. With no Google Maps, the role of navigator is crucial.
That’s where the novel’s other narrator comes in. A bookish young man named Willie Bachhuber has moved next door to Titch and Irene. He’s a history teacher, recently suspended for suspending a student out a window. He’s also a minor celebrity on a radio quiz show, which leads us down one of the novel’s several aimless detours. Having fled his own brief marriage, Willie is quickly attracted to Irene, who is perhaps a little too encouraging of his adoration. But she and Titch need a navigator for the Redex Trial, and Willie happens to be a master with maps.
A great trio is born — and they’re off across the Outback! As a rare woman driver, Irene makes their entry even more newsworthy. “Ours was the country that had killed the white men who dared to cross it,” she says. “Now we would face the killer country.”
After more than hundred pages of fairly aimless preparations, that promise of grand adventure is welcome, but late. Prescient readers might catch sounds here and there of the drama that lies ahead, but everyone else will probably jump out of this slow-moving plot before it reaches the main event.
That’s too bad because Carey eventually arrives at a profound and poignant story, though it has little to do with the zany car race. Along the route, Irene stumbles upon what appears to be a mass grave and picks up the skull of a murdered Aboriginal child. “It was just a tiny thing, as fragile and powdery as an emu egg,” Irene says. “I was a mother. I knew what it was to hold a tender child and I knew this must be a little boy, and all these bones around him must be his family. He was quite clean, and very light, and it seemed he might turn to dust if I was clumsy.” At this moment, the novel takes a sharp turn into far more substantial territory.
In a series of disorienting revelations, we learn that Willie is not the man he thinks he is. Nor is Australia the country it imagines itself to be — but then, what country is? As the Redex Trial and the potentially rich feminist story of Irene fade into the background, Carey recasts “A Long Way From Home” as a novel that moves through time instead of across geography. After some complicated shenanigans, Willie gets stuck in a remote place and is conscripted to teach Aboriginal children. There he must finally confront the uncomfortable facts of his own convoluted identity, and that leads inevitably toward unearthing his country’s purposely distorted history. Maps, we’re forced to see, are just as effective at obliterating a place as they are at delineating what the dominant culture wants to be true.
The action in these latter chapters is often oblique, obscured further by elliptical conversations, partly in dialect. But that’s an intentional and rather brilliant representation of Willie’s plight. He’s a man determined to unearth the richness of Aboriginal culture even while respecting its secrets. Those conflicting goals ultimately find perfect expression in Carey’s strange narrative. But as with the Redex Trial itself, few are likely to make it to the finish line.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Peter Carey
Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95