Neal Price’s review of The Dizzying Heights
The Dizzying Heights
Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen
Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne.
ISBN No: 978-1-925736-30-4
pp. 248, $24.99.
Review by Neal Price
Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen’s previous collaboration Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. The Dizzying Heights now carries the bumbling anti-hero Professor Dr Grafton Everest to new heights and previously unimagined depths.
The Dizzying Heights is Fitzgerald and McFadyen’s second novel together. In a post Donald Trump era, it paints a disturbingly contemporaneous view of Australian and American friendship that tips its hat to George Orwell but is a distinctly Antipodean comedy thriller. It’s truly frightening to see the political landscape we have become used to swept away in a few simple manoeuvres and replaced by promises of a utopian (if not dystopian) paradise.
As Grafton Everest would say, “How easy was that?” Welcome to the future Australia!
While Grafton actually does little except worry about his cock, eyesight, failing health and what he’s about to eat, he mysteriously is soon to be President of the new Australian Republic and subsequently placed in charge of the innovative Department of Wellness.
A constitutional glitch has propelled Grafton into the upper echelons of influence. Under the new regime, wellness and happiness have ultimate social value. And with sweeping changes, ‘niceness’ becomes the modus operandi to supposedly guarantee social cohesion and national growth.
Fitzgerald’s current coupling with Ian McFadyen drives a satirical arrow straight to the heart of political power in Australia and the US of A. Fitzgerald and McFadyen’s bold comic timing is perfect for the previously passive Professor. Under their guidance, Grafton not only stumbles and bumbles, but occasionally emerges actively into action.
In the latest Grafton Everest adventure, Fitzgerald and McFadyen work together as tight as clockwork and their partnership is electric. They have quickly become my favourite comedy power couple.
In The Dizzying Heights, Lee Anne, Grafton’s supposedly gifted daughter, arrives from the States champing at the bit to play an elevated role in the new Republic. Wife to Wayne Singlet, a space technology genius, and mother to baby Justice, Grafton’s only child enthusiastically throws herself into the running of the inaugural Department of Wellness.
Grafton’s devoted and utterly unfazed wife Janet, with a new interest in bird watching, remains largely uninterested in Grafton’s sea of troubles, yet from time to time provides gentle direction to his often rudderless character. In various incarnations, Grafton’s old schoolmaster, the omnipresent puppet master Mr Horton tinkers in the background of everyone’s lives. These key characters all serve to deepen the drama around Australia’s new President elect.
Grafton steps into a world that reflects almost nothing of his childhood values. The zeitgeist of 2020 leaves him floundering. The best Grafton can remember from his youth is that “fish and chips make everything bearable’’.
It is the remembrance of universal truths that we instinctively know to be true, coupled with Grafton listing his favourite foods that helps make The Dizzying Heights so enjoyable. When all that is recognisable seems to be taken away, we still have the memory of past meals in happier times. It’s rather like Homer Simpson remembering a donut – reassuring, and deeply comforting.
Grafton’s ride through Times Square on a donkey called Rupert is both visually funny and an arse slapping moment in a post Trump America where Grafton has a golden touch when it comes to social media. Indeed he soon acquires a Jesus like status. Whether it’s a trope “I’m a doer!” or making a ‘race related’ statement by wearing his beloved black and white Collingwood football jumper to a Gridiron match in New York, his actions only serve to make Grafton more presidential in the eyes and hearts of the mass of Americans.
But while being presidential may suit a revamped Grafton, as this fine comic novel suggests being presidential in two places at once might well do Grafton in.
Back home with Janet, and with Lee-Anne’s former babysitter Nanny Neal assuming the Vice Presidency, things go from bad to worse. In Australia citizens no longer are required to work if they don’t feel like it, the Armed Forces have been sacked because shooting people is not “nice”, and there is a moral and civic leadership vacuum that urgently needs attention.
Although still not a self-starter, Grafton’s essential apathy renders him peculiarly useful. Indeed a President who does virtually nothing is seen to be a useful commodity and worth as much as gold.
As Nanny Neal points out to Grafton when the new Republic seems to be in ruins, “it will be just like it was before, except vegan”.
It is pleasing to see Fitzgerald and McFadyen milking the food metaphor to the end. And when in the novel’s final pages Grafton decamps to a secret Mt Kosciuszko location, those niggling thoughts of who might actually be running the government and the nation are expertly revealed.
McFadyen’s wit and precision for delivering the iconic ‘funny line’ sets up this hilarious Everest adventure with prophetic truths to tell. Fitzgerald too has the ancient Irish insight of seeing into the future. His prediction of the Brisbane Floods of 2010 in a previous Everest adventure, Busy In The Fog, was uncanny. For close on two decades, the Grafton Everest series have provided a road map of bold political satire in this country. Now, more than ever, the combined voice of Fitzgerald and McFadyen need to be seen and read and heard.
Fitzgerald and McFadyen’s humour is extremely sharp. Indeed, strongly reminiscent of Tom Sharpe (and Howard Jacobson), The Dizzying Heights is over the top political and sexual satire at its very best.
As Barry Humphries writes, “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation”.
Neal Price is a Brisbane writer and critic.
The Dizzying Heights is currently available from the publishers: https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/
And from Booktopia: