Larger and Hungrier than Life
by Neal Price
Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen
The Lowest Depths : The eighth book in the Grafton Everest series.
Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne, 2021, $24.99
Co-written with Ian McFadyen, of Comedy Company fame, The Lowest Depths is Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s 43rd book and the eighth in his Grafton Everest series.
Fitzgerald’s latest offering cleverly bookends the seventh Grafton Everest fiction, The Dizzying Heights – published in 2019 by Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne, which is also co-written with McFadyen.
It is unprecedented in Australia, and perhaps in the English-speaking world, for eight political/sexual satires to be written chronologically, following the development of the same set of key characters.
The closest I can think of are PG Wodehouse’s comic novels about the bumbling Bertie Wooster and his hugely intelligent manservant, Jeeves. But they do not develop, and Wodehouse has a stationary sense of time.
The first Grafton Everest entertainment, Pushed From The Wings, was published in Australia in 1986. This was a time when Ross Fitzgerald – then a lecturer at Brisbane’s Griffith University – was a leading activist against the regime of Sir Johannes (‘Joh’) Bjelke-Petersen.
Pushed From The Wings savagely lampooned both university life and Queensland politics. In it, Bjelke-Petersen became the odious Sir Otis Hoogstraden.
Sales of the book in Australian were certainly helped by a glowing review by Barry Humphries, published in Quadrant Magazine. In an endorsement of the quality of Fitzgerald’s fiction, Humphries wrote that “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation whom I would place without question in the ranks of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”
Pushed From The Wings was followed by All About Anthrax, an acrostic novel, again featuring Fitzgerald’s anti-hero, which was published in Australia in 1987, also by Hale & Iremonger.
When the first two Grafton Everest adventures were republished in England in 1989, in Corgi Bantam’s prestigious Black Swan series, they sold well in South Africa and Great Britain. This is probably because they are reminiscent of Tom Sharpe’s over the top sexual/political satires set in South Africa under Afrikaner rule and because, in the London Observer, the Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson wrote a rave review of Pushed From The Wings and All About Anthrax. Jacobson’s review was headlined ‘Conquering Everest.’
In Fitzgerald’s latest fictive offering, The Lowest Depths, Dr Professor Grafton Everest, the hapless ex-President of the Republic of Australia, whose beloved wife Janet is away on a world tour, finds himself part of a United Nations mission to investigate electoral fraud in Russia.
As a result, Fitzgerald’s Panama-hat wearing, corpulent key character finds himself in Moscow and the icy wastes of Siberia in what the book’s blurb terms “a plot full of twists and turns that would make an Olympic gymnast proud.”
A former lecturer in Wellbeing at the University of Mangoland; a Queensland Senator holding the balance of power; Envoy to Great Britain; and briefly the first Australian President, Grafton has been persuaded to try and write a memoir about his improbable career.
Delving into family files, Grafton finds a letter written by his late mother, Avis, to a son who, surprisingly, is not him – a brother he never knew he had. Most puzzling is that the address on the letter is somewhere in Russia.
When Grafton is asked to join a UN delegation to investigate poll fixing in Russia, allegedly orchestrated by the hugely powerful President Vladimir Putrid, he accepts, hoping to take the opportunity to track down this mysterious half-sibling. In Moscow he finds that his mother, an intelligence officer during the Cold War, had an affair with Nicolai Orlov, an actor in the Moscow Art Theatre. More intriguing is that Orlov was possibly connected to the legend of the Kolchak’s Gold – a vast tonnage of bullion that was shipped to the east during the Russian Revolution to keep it out of the hands of the Bolsheviks. Solving the mystery takes Grafton via the Trans-Siberian railway to the Far East, where he faces doom on the waters of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake.
En route to Russia he is contacted by the CIA who suspect that the Russians are creating a mind-control drug under the guise of developing a Corolla-virus vaccine. Grafton thus arrives in Moscow with three separate missions.
Shortly after landing in Moscow, Grafton goes to the famed Metropol Hotel to meet his old Melbourne Boys High School biology teacher, long-time mentor and former husband of the late Avis Everest, the mysterious Lee Horton whom, Grafton discovers, has been shadowing him all along, in various disguises.
As well as Dr Professor Grafton Everest himself, his daughter Lee-Anne, his son-in-law Wayne Singlet, and his grandchild Justice feature prominently. So too do Mr Horton, Nanny Neal, and especially Grafton’s loyal and long-suffering wife Janet. All of these three key characters appear in all eight of Grafton’s adventures.
But in The Lowest Depths, along with Grafton himself, it is Russia and its corrupt and dictatorial president-for-life, Vladimir Putrid who takes centre stage.
Given recent, unambiguous, real-life examples of malpractice, rorting, and stand-over tactics in the September 2021 Russian elections, including the removal and imprisonment of almost all of Vladimir Putin’s opponents, this is all very timely.
Over the course of the seven previous novels, I’ve grown fond of the teetotal Grafton Everest and his captivating cache of fellow travellers.
In this eighth political satire Nanny Neal has morphed into a hyper-male survivalist living in a camper van, and the financial fortunes of Lee-Anne and her husband have evaporated, forcing them to return home with Justice to live with Grafton in Australia.
Like Janet, Nanny Neal’s moral giga-counter is fixed on ‘true North’ and often acts to mitigate the fallout from some of the strange and unpredictable events of Grafton’s life. But Janet is away on a world tour and, as a result, Grafton is even more rudderless than usual.
These days, Fitzgerald’s corpulent anti-hero is slightly hearing-impaired and walks with the aid of a sparkling cane which resembles a wand. But, despite this, physically he is still as strong as an ox, and none of Grafton’s impediments prevent his relentless persistence, which remains his strongest and his weakest quality. Especially in Janet’s absence, as portrayed in The Lowest Depths Grafton is also somewhat less self-absorbed and hypochondriacal than in other novels.
Grafton’s obsession with food, which prevails in all eight adventures, remains a driving force. We are reminded, in forensic detail, of all that he has eaten, is about to eat, and what he has eaten in the past. In doing so, Grafton maps an ever-changing world, in which he is drawn in along a plot line which features a very comforting menu of delicious Russian and homely treats. It’s as if by eating everything in his path, he might somehow understand what’s happening around him. But that’s not easy, especially as this Grafton Everest adventure includes numerous cryptic crosswords, layers of coded spy messages, mysterious book and play titles, and a crucial unsent letter. Along with a gender fluid Mr Horton, in The Lowest Depths Fitzgerald and McFadyen build a metaphor of Russian Dolls (layers within layers) that both confuses and entices Grafton between meals.
Professor Fitzgerald’s knowledge of Russian history and its cold war ambience gives this eighth novel a rich sense of place and time, and as always Grafton is drawn closer to the centre of a catastrophe, clutching at snacks as if his life depended on it. As indeed it does. Without giving too much away, I can reveal that, in a Graftonesque moment of destiny, it is ultimately chocolate that saves his life.
There is much here that might require the services of a psychoanalyst, including the deeply Freudian problem of ‘oral incorporation’, as manifested by Grafton’s obsession with food. As well, the enduring themes of his mother, Avis Everest, “who would tell a lie when the truth would do” and a previously lost brother who seems to be invariably successful, have strong Shakespearian undertones. It is this and other qualities that makes the duo of Fitzgerald and McFadyen so fascinating in the anodyne world of contemporary Australian writing.
In their previous partnerships it was relatively easy to see how Fitzgerald (who created all the characters) loads the jokes, while McFadyen’s comedic timing pulls the trigger. But in The Lowest Depths the writing is utterly seamless.
A not so gentle reminder at the book’s beginning; “What fun is there in writing if one doesn’t go too far?” (Graham Greene) serves as a warning to the current ‘woke’ generation. This entertainment opens at a Writer’s Festival where, as keynote speaker, Grafton attempts to reinstate Captain James Cook as the discoverer of Australia. The Lowest Depths also asks extremely uncomfortable questions about ‘colour casting’ in the entertainment industry, which is so stunningly politically incorrect, I gasped. On a second read, I gasped even more.
While Grafton is full of neuroses and sometimes suffers signs of ageing, he remains curious, highly intelligent and, dare I say, ultimately loveable. Placing him in the Soviet Union, staying at Moscow’s magnificent Metropol Hotel with its lavish Rococo interiors, and a credit card paid for by Australian taxpayers, Grafton is outside his comfort zone. His feelings of being watched and fear of being poisoned heightens Grafton’s anxiety and, therefore, the intensity of the situation in which he finds himself.
Unlike the previous political/sexual satires, The Lowest Depths, which is set in contemporary Russia and Australia, is much more dramatic than it is merely funny. Tightly woven tensions underpin all of Grafton’s adventures. But here, Fitzgerald’s unforgettable alter-ego is indeed a superb creation which illuminates us in dire times.
The latest Fitzgerald/McFadyen collaboration works a treat. To my mind, it is even more enticing and cleverly plotted than their co-written Grafton Everest adventure Going Out Backwards, which in 2017 was short-listed for our only award for Humour Writing, the bi-annual Russell Prize.
In my not-so-humble opinion, the eight political/sexual satires featuring Dr Professor Grafton Everest should be made into a film or TV series, set here in Australia. It would make captivating viewing.
Neal Price is a Tasmanian artist and writer.
Quadrant Magazine, November 2021, pp 87-89.