Truth and beauty in the wake of a literary hoax

February 01, 2004|By Dan Cryer | Dan Cryer,Chicago Tribune

My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey. Knopf. 266 pages. $24.

For Peter Carey, Australia is half a world away now. Yet living in New York City seems to empower this expatriate novelist. From a distance he can see his native land with greater clarity, investing its history and lore with the aura of legend.

Carey's previous novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, for instance, elevated a real 19th-century outlaw charged with horse theft and murder into a Robin Hood-like folk hero. The book won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.

My Life as a Fake again appropriates Australian history. This time Carey draws on an infamous literary hoax, then adds elements of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The result is a wholly absorbing, bizarrely madcap comedy and a telling commentary on the sometimes baffling sources of art.

First the hoax. In 1944, two traditionalist Australian poets duped the editor of an avant-garde literary magazine into publishing the work of a fictitious poet, a mechanic named Ern Malley. His work was supposedly discovered by his sister after he died. Malley's verses, concocted by the poets, interspersed original material with lines cribbed from Shakespeare and other poets.

Carey's transmutation of this scenario begins in 1972 with Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of The Modern Review, an esteemed London poetry quarterly. Discovering and disseminating exceptional poetry, it's clear from her narration, is what she lives for. Yet will her sophistication prove a match for the combined cunning of John Slater and Christopher Chubb? Will her very zeal render her vulnerable to the conundrums of a "McCorkle hoax," perpetrated by Chubb, that once roiled Australia's literary circles?

Slater, a longtime family friend Wode-Douglass no longer respects, is the first to approach her. This slimy poet-bohemian is a phony of dubious talent. Slater lures Wode-Douglass into traveling, on his nickel, to Malaysia.

Blacklisted from the Australian literary world, Chubb, the one-time hoaxer, has been reduced to repairing bicycles in Malaysia's capital. Wode-Douglass' first sight of him reveals a pathetic, sarong-wearing figure hunched over his work in a dirty workshop. But once he shows Wode-Douglass a glimpse of a McCorkle poem, it is as though a genie were let out of a bottle. Fake or not, it's a work of genius, she believes, that she must publish.

Carey paints both characters in bold, vivid colors -- one a smooth operator oozing false bonhomie, the other a haunted, wasted devotee at the shrine of art. Slater whispers to Wode-Douglass about Chubb's "delusional world." And when the poor guy natters on about a 7-foot giant who calls himself Bob McCorkle and kidnaps and claims Chubb's daughter as his own, we have to wonder. One tall tale, indeed. McCorkle is the Frankenstein monster come back to haunt his creator.

McCorkle stands for Australian writing, a primeval, original force unwittingly given voice by the old British Empire. "What had been clever," Carey writes of a poem written in McCorkle's name, "had now become true, the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the antipodes."

Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake is yet another example of Australia's literary coming of age. Though fiction, the book is anything but fake. It's truth, beauty and comedy wrapped in one sprightly package.

Dan Cryer was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. He is the staff book critic for Newsday and has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The New Republic and Salon.com. This review, in longer form, was published in Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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