A LONG WAY FROM HOME
By Peter Carey
318 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
With his new novel, Peter Carey continues his streak of using titles (“Amnesia,” “The Chemistry of Tears”) that sound like made-for-TV specials. Thankfully, behind the delicate phrase on the cover of “A Long Way From Home” is a propulsive account of an Australian road race, a “Cannonball Run” with sociopolitical commentary lashed to the bumper. If the title conjures polite restraint, the novel itself is reliably free-flowing. And why not? Carey is once again in his happy place, Australia’s past, this time the 1950s, where he’s free to fill the text with all the evocations he savors as an expat, perched overseas in New York. While he isn’t channeling a rough-hewn character like Ned Kelly, as he did in “True History of the Kelly Gang,” his second Man Booker Prize-winning novel, his two narrators still like to kink and twist their Aussie phrasing.
Irene Bobs and Willie Bachhuber are neighbors in Bacchus Marsh, Carey’s hometown. It’s a familiar world: The author’s parents sold automobiles when he was young, and at the beginning of the book Irene and her pint-size husband, Titch, are vying to get a dealership of their own. The race they enter, for the sake of publicity, is the Redex Trial, a dusty tour of Australia that will pit the dominance of Ford over “Australia’s Own Car,” the General Motors Holden: “Two hundred lunatics circumnavigating the continent of Australia, more than 10,000 miles over outback roads so rough they might crack your chassis clean in half.” It’s an adventure that will trace the “Crystal Highway,” named for all the broken windscreen glass scattered along the verges on a road of “rough conditions, corrugations, bulldust, bone-breaking rock” and, in calmer moments, “the hypnotic undulations of the blacktop.” The landscape is so alive to Carey that it forms a body, from the tip of Darwin down to the desolate Nullarbor Plain, where the wind whips the sand, the “gnarled and stunted scrub, myall and mallee and mulga.” “If Australia had a bottom,” Carey writes, “this would be the place it did its business.”
The land may be a character, but the speaking voices belong to Irene and Willie, the unlikely driver and her navigator. Irene is tough: a driver able to craft inventive solutions, at one point stretching her sister’s dirty stocking over cylindrical mesh to reassemble an air cleaner. “If I had been so easily discouraged,” she explains, “I would still be a virgin bride. That was not how I did things, by being defeated at the start.”
Willie is the oft-mentioned German bachelor of Bacchus Marsh, a disgraced teacher suspended for holding a student out of a second-story window after being taunted with racial remarks. Raised by a Lutheran pastor in Adelaide, Willie is unaware of the complexity of his heritage. He’s convinced his correct place in the world is “elsewhere, located on a map with German names.” As he navigates for Irene and Titch along the Crystal Highway, these internal German maps of his lost identity become less important than those of his own country, just as the race becomes less important than the journey. Their battered Holden crosses land mapped with lines made by whites and Aboriginals, some laid down in the present, some as old as the soil. But Carey isn’t bound by the car-race plot he introduces at the beginning. His plans for the novel flap as they exit out the window. Speed is what’s important.
As usual with Carey, the voices lead. His narrators are voluble and digressive. Returning to the pattern he used in “Parrot and Olivier in America,” “The Chemistry of Tears” and “Theft,” Carey mostly alternates chapters (until he doesn’t), so the duo can cajole and spark each other on, provide differing views. The divide isn’t as pronounced as in “Theft,” the 2006 novel in which the artist Michael Boone spoke in regular type and his brother blustered along in occasional bursts of OUTRAGEOUS CAPS. Irene and Willie share a sensibility and a register, which makes for a more seamless but less distinctive reading experience. Both are outsiders in their own lives. Their accounts are linked by mutual curiosity and a thread of sexual tension. Willie notices the way Irene wears her work clothes: “Astonishing how coveralls reveal a body when the intention is the very opposite.”
These aren’t Carey’s most intimate voices. They push activity rather than rest in reflection. Ned Kelly was a sustained act of ambitious ventriloquism in which Carey explained, with forgiving intimacy, the rise of the folk hero and the plight of the Irish in Australia, and perhaps he was more confident with the character’s limits, cultural background and voice. In “Oscar and Lucinda,” Carey took his time, switching between the worlds of his titular characters, slipping in a gentle crossfade. Here there’s no time for delicacy: He crunches gears. He goes with speed and a haphazard style. These narrators are always heading somewhere.