Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen, The Lowest Depths, Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne, $24.95.
Reviewed by Dr Alan Gregory
Ian McFadyen is a writer, actor and television producer who has created several successful television series, books, and plays. He is remembered by many for his role in the TV series “The Comedy Company”, in which he sometimes appeared, unforgettably, as Sir David Rabbitborough.
This is the eighth Grafton Everest adventure. While the two most recent were co-written with McFadyen, for two of the others Fitzgerald had different collaborators.
The scene-setting, opening chapters of The Lowest Depths remind the reader that Grafton Everest was for many years an academic at the University of Mangoland. But he became a Federal parliamentarian holding the balance of power. And then, Senator Everest became the first President of the Republic of Australia.
We find Everest at a Writers Festival.
The book will have special appeal to those who experienced the age before writers’ festivals, modern supermarkets, and what really constitutes academic research. There are superb digs at political correctness – not only colour-blind testing for parts in films and plays but also gender-blind testing! Yes, Black Lives May Matter but also Green and Orange ones. In this novel, new dog breeds include Goldhunds and Rottcollies. There are also First Nation Paleo-food and many other gastronomic delights.
Grafton Everest is extremely lost trying to cope at home without his much-loved wife Janet, who is travelling overseas with a group of all-female friends on a twenty-six-city world tour. The section describing Everest’s first venture into a modern supermarket is hilarious, as he is bewildered by the whole place and especially the mysteries of self-serve checkouts. Indeed, most modern technology is beyond him. Then comes the arrival from America of his pregnant, vegan daughter Lee-Anne, her husband Wayne Singlet and their son Justice, as it transpires, to live with Grafton on his own. Lee-Anne wisely calls in Nanny Neal to look after Justice and bring the house into order, but Neal has now become an urban-survivalist.
Grafton, with nothing much to do, is persuaded to start researching his autobiography. Doing so, he uncovers ambiguous information about his own birth and ancestry, with a strange suggestion of a Russian connection.
Then the Australian government invites him to be a delegate to a United Nations team investigating the recent election, as President for Life of Russia, one Valdimir Putrid. (In other parts of The Lowest Depths, we become aware of American Presidents George Bosh and Ronald Thump). Confusing Grafton Everest with another academic, Australian government officials believe he is fluent in Russian, which of course he is not.
So begins a thriller – which takes Everest to Russia. It includes an enthralling trip on the TransSiberian Railway and many amazing and surreal adventures.
A key character in the book is Mr Lee Horton, Grafton’s “former high school science teacher, erstwhile father-in-law, former spy and lifelong mentor”. Horton is, in part, based on the late legendary Melbourne High School teacher Norton Hobson and, in part, on Fitzgerald’s sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, the late Lee Parry, who was the advertising manager of Radio 3AW. In real life, Norton Hobson was an eccentric but brilliant teacher at Melbourne High, who had a major impact on everyone he taught, including one-time Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and Ross Fitzgerald himself.
In The Lowest Depths, Mr Horton is able to clone himself into various forms and follow Everest wherever he goes, getting him out of several serious scrapes. Indeed, in all eight Grafton Everest adventures, Mr Horton is crucial to Everest’s well-being and sometimes to his survival.
The characters, all of whom are Fitzgerald’s creations, are caricatures. But they are well-drawn, and the latest Grafton Everest entertainment is absorbing, if to the literalist sometimes implausible. Mention by Fitzgerald and McFadyen in their latest offering of another book, The Da Vinci Code, gives a hint of some of the flavour of these current adventures.
The Lowest Depths is both extremely well-written and utterly enthralling.
Embrace the improbability and enjoy!
Dr Alan Gregory AM
Melbourne High School Old Boys Magazine Newsletter, December 2021, pp 29-31
Also The Sydney Institute Review of Books, November 2021.