Boyd Oxlade’s a one-hit wonder, as far as writing is concerned. He recently died, having almost completed his second novel, and it’s a shame it won’t see the light of day, because this one is a ripper.
Imagine something close to an examination of the outsider, a meditation on friendship, a crime story and a kitchen-sink recounting of the life of a chef and a gravedigger (both jobs the author had held, tellingly) and you’re getting close.
It’s mainly a fix-the-problem kind of book – there’s several issues from love to more life-or-death matters – but there’s always more to see. For me, I loved the eye for ennui exhibited here:
Carl wandered out into his back yard. It was a maze of overgrown native trees, grey-green spiny grevilleas and untidy ti-tree. Over all hung the cat’s-piss smell of wattle. He found it terribly depressing. No wonder the early explorers succumbed to melancholy, surrounded by this sort of thing.
There’s a lightness of touch here, with lots of deep, confessional observation hidden in the everyday. It’s a quick read, but it feels like it’ll stick around much longer.
The problem for me with this book is that I’ve seen the film version. It’s impossible to separate the versions of Carl and Dave in the novel from those in the film – something this printing of the book seems to encourage, given the cover art. Thankfully, it’s generally a positive pairing – with Dave’s character, especially, you can see there’s little John Clarke would’ve had to do to bring the fantastically earthy (Comrade!) Dave to life: what you read is what you got, at least on the silver screen. The character of Carl is a little more complex than Sam Neill’s reading made apparent, particularly given developments later in the novel.
The thing that really jarred for me, though, is that the book has a much different ending. I won’t give it away, but the film version ties things up very nicely; not so, here. Though I know that adapting for film means certain things have to be cut, there’s some very nice ambiguity and examination of friendship (far beyond mateship) that takes place in the book which mean the text is superior. Though the film is dark, there’s a blacker streak in the book, and it’s truly grim watching Carl’s trip from melancholy onwards.
This is a brief, sad and disturbingly funny book. It’s a bit of a time capsule – the gentrification which Carl laments as being the preserve of doctors and lawyers has rolled on, and it’s almost sweet to see his desire to get out of a Victorian terrace and into a crisp new flat, given the migration in the other direction is so popular now – and it presents a picture of an ’80s rock Melbourne that appears so distant, now. The Divinyls and Birthday Party-styled hair, the novelty of multiculturalism, the continual intrusion of Australia’s ockerish personality – all of these create a vivid, noisome picture of what the city used to be like.
It’s a great place to visit. If you only know the film – and you liked it – then the book will, as ever, give you so much more. Spend an afternoon with Carl and Dave, ya mug.