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Bumbling hero back for more scattergun satire

26 May 2018 64 views No Comment

by Peter Pierce

‘So Far, So Good’
By Ross Fitzgerald and Antony Funnell
Hybrid Publications, 214pp, $22.95

‘The Power Game’
By Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally
Vintage, 317pp, $32.99

The first appearance of Ross Fitzgerald’s apparently bumbling hero, Dr Professor Grafton Everest, was in ‘Pushed From the Wings’ (1986). Books two and three followed soon after, but the fourth had to wait until 2011, when Fitzgerald collaborated with Trevor Jordan. Next he enlisted Ian McFadyen, and now ‘So Far, So Good’ has been written in the evidently genial company of journalist Antony Funnell.

The outcome is scattergun satire, a glimpse of havoc in the near future at the various compass points to which Everest’s suddenly renewed celebrity see him drawn. The 10-day Premier of Mangoland, who also “briefly held the balance of power in the Australian Senate”, had not expected to be called to a Tory Grand Conference in Britain, nor to be named to an Eminent Persons Group to plan an Australian republic. The political landscape is dishevelled. An American president has been assassinated. Charles is now (a reclusive) king and Australian prime ministers seem to turn over monthly. The latest is the splendidly named oaf Scott Braggadocio.

In Britain, the Conservative Party chairman, Sir Alistair Mandeville, harks back to the glory of 1066 and the Norman Conquest while planning a coup from the right. His motto is “Encourage discord. Enhance fear. Enforce a solution”.

There are homeland satirical targets as well. Everest, now he is respectable again, is invited to his former university. It has been rechristened Excitement University. There are 60 pro vice-chancellors but no offices for staff, no lecture theatres and no failing students, for “it’s about meeting their pre-purchased expectations”. Unfortunately, this also means no exaggeration of the modern tertiary malaise.

Abroad, the fun is more hectic. We meet Wayne Singlet, who marries Everest’s daughter and whose fortune was made by “an app that allows people to colour code their social media accounts according to mood”. In a mad world, Everest is a serene and astute survivor.

‘So Far, So Good’ — and no doubt there will be more from him yet.

Two other collaborating authors, daughter and father Meg and Tom Keneally, have produced the third volume of the Monsarrat series, ‘The Power Game’. The gentleman convict’s tour of eastern Australia’s penal settlements continues. After Port Macquarie and Parramatta, Monsarrat, whose ticket of leave is conditional on his continued detective work on behalf of the governor’s secretary, is dispatched on January 1826 to Maria Island, off the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land.

His companion is an Irish emancipist housekeeper, Mrs Mulrooney. The business is the axe murder of the hated Bart Harefield, skipper of the cutter that plies between the mainland and the smaller prison island. Its notable inmate is Thomas Power (modelled on the Irish political prisoner William Smith O’Brien), whose revolutionary rhetoric, coming from a rich, landed Catholic, is anathema to Mrs Mulrooney, who has lost her father and the father of her son to the British.

Mulrooney has been transported for stealing butter to feed her orphaned son, now lost to her somewhere in NSW; Power — although a former member of the British House of Commons — for advocating independence for those who “live and die in the cracks and crannies of the Irish nation”. (As the authors admit, their usual historical fidelity is relaxed for an anachronism: Smith O’Brien was transported for his part in the rebellion of 1848, more than two decades into the future.)

The ambitious commandant, Captain James Brewster, is accompanied by his wife Elizabeth and her unworldly brother, Walter. The backstory of the first two Monsarrat volumes is recalled: the death of another commandant’s wife, the vengefulness and corruption of magistrates, the fire and the fortune in jewels that Mulrooney salvaged, Monsarrat’s possibly doomed and certainly delayed love for the convict Grace O’Leary. On this “island dangling off an island dangling off an island”, Monsarrat warily moves. His background is at first unknown to the authorities at Darlington (named for the incoming governor). Monsarrat is “a ticket-of-leaver who was an investigator even of his betters”. He learns of the smuggling of letters to and from the island — mostly personal, some incendiary — of blackmail involving a false but potentially fatal accusation of sodomy and another of an affair between Power and the commandant’s wife.

Power is a mercurial figure who the authorities would like to indict for Harefield’s murder, not for weight of evidence but to discredit a hero of Irish nationalism. Ambivalent towards him, Mulrooney declares that “we shared the same island. But not the same country.” His was estates and fine houses; hers “one of anger and blood and courage and loss”.

The Keneallys pile incidents precipitately on one another: Power’s thwarted escape; the poisoning of Elizabeth Brewer; the increasingly erratic rule of her husband. Monsarrat judges that “this place is in the grip of a man who seems incapable of feeling”.

Discerning that his investigator has been a convict, Power declares: “Those on whom justice has descended most heavily are the best placed to recognise what is truly just and what isn’t.” The plotting of The Power Game is skilled and confident; the energy of the series has not flagged; a fourth book is signalled. This time the murder of the editor of the Sydney Chronicle will require Monsarrat’s skills. More adventures are in store, as well as further reckonings of the melancholy of exile and the hardness of things in this new world.

Peter Pierce edited The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

‘The Weekend Australian’, May 26-27, 2018, review, Books pp 24-25.

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