My name is Herbert Badgery. I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. They come and look at me and wonder how I do it. There are weeks when I wonder the same, whole stretches of terrible time. It is hard to believe you can feel so bad and still not die.
I popped my Peter Carey cherry with Illywhacker, Carey’s second novel from 1985. I was disposed to like it before I had even opened it; the heavily typographic art characteristic of the UQP’s pretty, lyrical covers – this edition is part of a series of re-releases done in 2001 – and the rough-cut pages give the book a wonderful aesthetic heft. And, apart from having received the Booker and The Age‘s blessings (shortlist and Book of the Year, respectively), Illywhacker was a loan from friends who gave it high praise.
As a useful epigraph supplies, an illywhacker is a professional trickster, someone who is putting a confidence trick over whatever audience is available. This is no idle descriptions; it is a warning. It is as if in the moment Herbert Badgery begins his little introduction, you are challenged not to be yet another wretched fool taken in by his words. Lying is an art, and Badgery a master painter. Yet Illywhacker is not just Badgery’s story, and Badgery’s words are not only lies. Lovers, parents, rivals, children all make up the raft of memorable characters, each of which is delivered as warm and vulnerable as a baby’s delicate skull. For all his convoluted bluster, Herbert Badgery cannot hide the magnitude of their impact on his life’s report. This book is an epic of grand proportions, an account of life that, while altered, is so complete as to put memory to shame.
How to describe the experience of reading my first Peter Carey novel? (For I’m sure I will read another.) Fond-eyed as a lover, I read every page with exigent attention. Carey is a radical storyteller, and his capacity for the precise evocation of detail is the alchemical complement to his fulsome imagination. By rights, Badgery’s efforts to con and disappear should rankle. Since circumstances so disparate and overwhelming continue to threaten him and his family’s well-being, a coherent family history seems unimaginable. But from the cutaneous to the vehicular, the historical to the magical, Illywhacker traverses the rich journeys taken by blood that is fatally flawed; blood which is, after all but finest filigree of the strongest steel.