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Fiction reviews


John Tittensor - Carmody Comes Home

27 July 1988

Carmody Comes Home
by John Tittensor

Published in The Age

A BLOKE IN Adelaide recently decided he'd enliven his sex life. He gagged his girlfriend and strapped her to the bed (she went willingly), donned some appropriately macho garb, and climbed on top of his Edwardian wardrobe - intending to fall upon her from a great height. Unfortunately he lost his footing, fell down the back of the wardrobe, and broke both legs. Neighbours failed to hear the unlucky couple's muffled cries - and it wasn't till three days later that they were rescued by an ambulance crew. The only thing the girlfriend had managed to be ravaged by was hunger.

The truism that life is stranger than fiction should be a salutary one for writers. It is most appropriate, of course, for those attempting to gild the lily - trying to make life more bizarre than it is already - through parody, fabulism or some other non-realist means.

Rushdie succeeds where most fail, in his astonishing epic Midnight's Children. But Rushdie is possibly a genius. Even the masterful John Kennedy Toole shows traces of a kind of parodic exhaustion around the edges of his beautiful Confederacy of Dunces. Lesser talents by the score simply lie by the roadside. Thus John Tittensor has the odds, and history, against him in Carmody Comes Home. The cover blurb (worth quoting, for once) will give you the general idea:

When Kevin Carmody returns to his native Melbourne after years in London, he finds that his devoutly Catholic mother has just played a dirty trick on him: she has died and begun to perform miracles, in that order.

Kevin's troubles, however, are only beginning. The CIA, an unscrupulous media multinational, and two orders of radical nuns are all out to exploit this miraculous suburban mum for their own unspeakable ends.

Will they succeed? Or will Kevin, aided by a Chinese-speaking rocker, a Jewish Aboriginal, and the nun he is in love with, finally see his mother's kidnapped corpse to its rightful resting place?

"Unscrupulous media multinational" is tautologous - but this is a pretty fair precis of the plot. Fortunately Tittensor's writing, which possesses a wry Aussie elegance, is usually up to the demanding task he sets himself. When it is not, things get pretty wearying: the cast of freaks reminds one of latter-day Fellini - doggedly clinging to its dwarves and acrobats - or in this case, a succession of sex-crazed lesbian nuns. The attempt to infuse every detail with caricature leads sometimes to a feeling of excess.

But there are innumerable skilful and lucid passages. The "savage ballet of urban driving" is described in memorable detail, when our hero is forced to take a taxi ride across Melbourne. The journey eventually gains Dantean proportions. Another time, an old friend of Carmody is discovered in his Carlton home - a "temple to entropy" - cowering behind locked doors from imminent renovators. ("They just can't leave a house alone.") Few minority groups escape unscathed. Of Jews, Carmody soothes a bigoted neighbour:

"On Saturdays they cannot attack Christian prayer-meetings. They can't drive to the shops or even switch on the lights. Their religion makes them powerless on Saturdays."

In the end this unabashed entertainment resolves its proudly silly plot, and vanishes from the mind like a comet.

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