Crime Scene: PETER DOYLE The Big Whatever. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Music and popular culture provide the backdrop to this long-awaited new Billy Glasheen novel.
It’s no surprise that Peter Doyle, authority on popular culture, slide guitarist, university professor and social historian, has written a series of novels that chronicle a time in Australian history when American pop-culture first became really influential.
Starting out in 1996 with Get Rich Quick (set in 1952), then the 1998 release Amaze Your Friends (set in 1957), through to 2001 and The Devil’s Jump (set in 1945) and now The Big Whatever (moving backwards and forwards between 1969 and 1973), all these books are immersed in the music and popular culture of the time periods in which they are set.
The protagonist of these novels is Billy Glasheen. Surprisingly gentle, good-natured and faithful, Glasheen has always flirted around the edges of the unseemly. Deeply involved in the ‘scene’, his previous outing with his best friend – would-be popstar, muso, muse and frequent bad boy Max Perkal – saw them both running a club in Sydney. Starting out on the fringe, they moved into more salubrious accommodation in Kings Cross, courtesy of a well-known local – Abe Saffron. From there they found themselves with a hit venue on their hands but in thrall to the man and struggling to keep things straight. Until Perkal stepped off the rails completely and, as far as Glasheen is aware, died in a mad getaway from the cops.
A few years on and The Big Whatever starts with Glasheen driving cabs in 1970s Sydney, maintaining a reasonably good relationship with his kids and ex-wife (whom he still adores), living in a sleep-out belonging to some good friends, and running a nice little money-earner on the side doing pickups and deliveries for another dope-growing mate – who incidentally is off overseas trying to flog an epic surf movie to sceptical Yanks.
Then an innocuous paperback, its title page torn out, appears in the glove-box of the cab. Not knowing where it came from is one thing, but finding that it seems to be Perkal’s story is a real kick in the guts. Lost Highway To Hell might be written under a different, if similar, name, but it’s clearly about the events leading up to Perkal’s supposed death, and it’s written by somebody who knows the inside story.
Glasheen is more than a bit put out by the possibility that Perkal might have been alive all these years after leaving him holding all the club’s problems, including Saffron and his mates getting hot and heavy about finances. So the search commences – for the book’s origins, and, with luck, Perkal himself. Of only marginally less importance are the answers to why the book was left in the cab in the first place and what message Glasheen should take from it:
‘Mel Parker … Max Perkal. Get it? And the character who’s me is called Johnny Malone. It’s written like a novel, but it’s obviously about Max and all that happened. It sounds like Max. Actual Max, raving off his head. Not someone trying to sound like him. HIM.’
It’s been a long wait for this new Glasheen book from Peter Doyle, and it’s been worth the anticipation. As Luc Sante puts it in the introduction:
Doyle’s great appeal as a writer lies in his position always as the sadder but wiser man, who has played with fire in his day and been sufficiently burned as to render him forever hesitant to pass judgement. He is tender with his characters – excepting of course the traitors and weasels and double-dealers – noting their humour and pathos and vain hopes.
There’s an interesting device at play in The Big Whatever, with the inclusion of a book within a book. As Parker/Perkal tells his story in the embedded novel, Glasheen is reading, analysing and discussing the contents with his friends, family and other people who knew them both at the time. Perkal’s voice is particularly strong, leaning outwards from the pages of his narrative, daring people to disapprove, or to understand how such a promising musician got himself into drug dealing and the robbery that eventually destroyed the life he and Glasheen had been building:
Yours truly was to be a kind of local rep, responsible for supplying powdered go-fast to musicians, artists, writers and other deadbeats. I was suspicious at first – you would be too, right? My question to Stan was, Why the hell me? His line was, Because you’re a staunch cat, Mel, solid as a rock, like a brother, and I’m back at him, Yeah sure, whatever you say, now give me the real story. He gets uncomfortable and lets it out in dribs and drabs. He personally hasn’t a clue how to go about retailing the product.
This is in the early 1960s – when heroin ruled and cocaine was just beginning to emerge on the Australian scene, so Perkal and his suppliers are in on the ground floor. They run a serious money-making enterprise, until the supply dries up. It’s also pre-Vietnam war and a future Moratorium march plays a big part in Perkal’s story. Beautiful descriptions dotted throughout this narrative inform the younger reader about the questionable fashion that went alongside the drug experimentation and rule-flaunting lifestyle of that period:
Thick blond hair parted in the middle in a kind of supercharged Bardot style. Wore R.M. Williams with Cuban heels, straight-leg Lee jeans, bulky knitted jumpers – Afghans or some shit – carried a big shoulder bag, flicked her long straight hair around. Private school, equestrian, confident. She first turned up at the Barrel saying she was writing an article about Bobby for a student paper. We talked, we took drugs, we made love, we moved on …
Bobby had taken to wearing long robes, with little mirrors and shit sewn into them. His afro hairdo was big enough to hide a cat in.
Perkel builds around him a core group of friends, musos, hangers-on and compatriots but as the drug-taking, drinking and law-breaking lifestyle starts to ramp up, things spiral out of control, and some members of the group duck for cover. As did many of the revolutionary gangs from that time, they go from harmless to no one but themselves, to dangerous and out of control with a kind of fatal inevitability. Always with Perkal as the observer, the wry documenter:
Pay attention to me, my tender young desolation angels, and dig the truth. The tide had turned, the pressure was on, and the shit was deep.
Wonderful references to pop culture are dotted throughout The Big Whatever, beautifully crafted into the narrative, designed to make some readers smile and nod. The sense of humour of all the characters in this novel is razor sharp and desert dry, and about as Australian as you can get in a culture that’s got American influence worming its way into everything.
But while the observations are getting drier, and the group’s behaviour is getting more and more ragged, there’s something sadly predestined about their ultimate fates. Which is why it would be so easy to imagine that Perkal had died with the rest of the gang in a fiery car crash, on the run after a brave series of heists that didn’t quite go to plan. This doesn’t make it easy for Glasheen to process this work of fiction, that to his eye, is most definitely not:
‘It’s very Max. It has his voice.’
‘And he does the unreliable narrator thing really quite well.’
‘He’s certainly proved himself unreliable over many years.’
Doyle balances Glasheen’s absolute conviction that Perkal is alive with just enough doubt to keep readers guessing, and to accept that Glasheen’s less on a mission to expose Perkal than searching for answers and trying to make sense of the turns his own life has taken.
When he and Denise (she of the Bardot-styled hair in the earlier part of the narrative) hit the road into country Australia, they are following the trail indicated by Perkal. Along the way they seek out many members of the original group of compatriots who started the Perkal journey – before the core of the gang went wild. Not exactly straightforward, but decipherable, the distances travelled seem to reflect the length of the duplicity. It turns out a lot of people knew Perkal was alive and have helped him:
Along the way I looked up some folks from the old Sydney days. I saw the Cat, proprietor of a chemist shop, a picture of respectability. The Multi-Grip Kid was running a big garage down south. Molly had a motel. Mr Bones, Brylcreem, Steptoe, the Reverend, the Sexational Gypsy Woman. Yeah, Johnny, you know them, our people – they send their regards. The old crew.
Alongside the terrific character studies in The Big Whatever there’s a strong sense of the time, and the place:
The countryside was your typical New South Wales Central Highlands – scrappy pastures, falling-down fences, the occasional rundown house with wrecked cars and tractors strewn about, lumpy brooding hills. Mobs of crows and galahs browsing by the roadside.
And throughout it all there is the music. In all of the Glasheen books the music is a soundtrack to the action, an indicator of the time and a reason for so many of Doyle’s characters to expound on their philosophy:
‘Anyway, glam rock is the big thing now. This Bowie feller.’
‘Ah, but that’s about to change. It’s your basic dialectics, comrade. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The thing gives birth to its other.’
Let’s take that as a hint that the The Big Whatever is not the end of Billy Glasheen, whatever he will become.
Peter Doyle The Big Whatever Dark Passage/Verse Chorus Press 2015 PB 310pp $24.95
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
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