The Illywhacker by Peter Carey


I enjoy and admire Peter Carey’s writing. Oscar and Lucinda is among my favourite works of modern fiction as is Jack Maggs. I had dropped into a bookstore on my way to somewhere and intended to pick up The Chemistry of Tears, not his latest book but one that was on my to read list and came across this title and out of curiosity bought it instead. It turns out that an illywhacker is one of those charming Australian colloquialisms like billabong or swagman. It means con artist or trickster.

This narrative begins in rural Australia just as the country is developing its identity and self-confidence as a nation. The illywhacker of the title is Herbert Badgery who has been travelling about the countryside selling Ford model T cars to farmers and small businessmen… teaching them how to drive a car as part of the deal and seducing their wives and daughters on the side. Herbert is telling his own story and informs the reader up front that he is a liar. However he explains that the one fantastic fact the reader can rely on is that his true age is one hundred and thirty nine, (a statement that is disproved by even my elementary arithmetic ability). Using the figures Herbert mentions I would guess he is a hundred years old, which gives him a good overview of the twentieth century; he need not have exaggerated his age.

Herbert has had a very rough start in life having been reduced to living in a refuse heap of a market place while not yet a teenager after the death of his father and the destruction of his father’s cartage business. Herbert is responsible for both these tragedies but his loss weighs lightly on his conscience because he is very tied up in his own self-preservation. A wealthy Chinese businessman: a first generation immigrant, adopts Herbert and initiates him into the world of illusion, which is an important tool in the career of every trickster. Much of Herbert’s history and background is filled in by flashbacks interjected into the narrative when needed to make sense of the story, which begins when Herbert is in his early thirties, and in the prime of life. At this point he has acquired an airplane and learned to fly and is forced to land in a farmer’s field near the town of Geeing in the territory of Victoria, South East Australia. Subsequently he becomes the guest of a wealthy family and falls in love with Phoebe, their young daughter. There are times when the story takes off on a flight of magic realism such as when Herbert and Phoebe make love on the slope    of the steep family rooftop, close to the sky and overlooking the trees.   Phoebe is not in love with Herbert, she is in love with Herbert’s  airplane and a few years’ later flies away leaving him with the care of their two infant children. In the midst of the depression Herbert and the children set off on a quest to find Phoebe while earning their living as a travelling Vaudeville show in the company of a beautiful young socialist turned dancer named Leah. …and so the story rambles along like a bumpy ride down an unpaved country road in a rickety Ford Model T.

Peter Carey has the talent of creating characters so unique and remarkable that no matter how minor their role in the story they are instantly recallable. This is not a small talent and with authors of lesser skill in this area I have often had to keep notes in making my way through novels of multiple generations in order to keep everyone straight. In consequence of this gift of creating memorable characters there is no disappointment when minor characters are met in passing and then left never to be mentioned again. Each encounter is perfectly introduced and measured so that the reader is not left to wonder whatever happened to a person visited just once along the way.

The story is full of humour and wonderful, even bizarre adventures, so that it is only in retrospect that you notice that Herbert is not a nice person. He blames his son Charles for the death of his little daughter when really Herbert is the neglectful parent. He strikes Charles so hard he looses most of his hearing. Herbert commits an even greater crime and is sent to prison where he indulges in correspondence courses and obtains a post secondary education. While Herbert is away in prison the narrative takes up the story of Charles who builds up a business in the illegal trade of exotic birds. Here Peter Carey is making a sad commentary on the relationship of Australia with the Western world wherein his country squanders the best of its inheritance. Charles justifies his actions concluding that by exporting these birds and their eggs to foreign markets they may be saved from extinction by those who value them for their bright colours and their rarity. Sadder still, Charles’s wife and children and even Leah,the Vaudevillian dancer, begin to live in cages high in the rafters of Charles’s exotic bird shop. Perhaps they are trying to avoid their own extinction. Obviously this is more magic realism that actually becomes believable under the pen of the author.

This is a rather long book of some five hundred and sixty pages divided into short chapters but the length of the book is justified by its perfect lack of tedium. I might read it again whereas one reading of War and Peace was enough for me (as much as I enjoyed it). You must wait until very near the end for the twist as to who the true narrator is, allowing you to guess how much lying has been going on. Here I am not giving away anything because in chapter one paragraph two, Herbert states up front, “I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.”


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