Authors: Peter Carey
The Tax Inspector
“Explosive and enigmatic … stunning. Carey makes of his tale an eerie tragicomedy, a novel of manners that edges, inexorably, into a chilling parable out of Edgar Allan Poe. We are often caught laughing at absurdities just before the onset of danger, before hilarity succumbs to menace. Only a writer as accomplished, as sure-handed as Carey, could keep these volatile elements in balance. The prose that won him Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize … cuts to the bone.”
“Much of Mr. Carey’s novel is funny, some of it is ghastly, and all of it is written with vigor and snap.”
—The New Yorker
“Charmingly zany … touchingly human. One can’t help being impressed by Mr. Carey’s unusual blend of violent humor, which never quite turns black but certainly passes through every shade of gray, shot through with brilliant splashes of psychedelic pink and chartreuse.”
The New York Times
“It is impossible not to admire the dedicated intimacy Carey brings to his characters. His novel is a profane parable with a stunning moral at its heart.”
Detroit Free Press
“A Hieronymus Bosch painting of a book—dense, demonic, at once surreal and hyper-real. It’s fun to curl up with
The Tax Inspector …
. Let it bowl you over.”
“Brilliant … haunting … surge[s] with life. Crammed with biting social commentary, brimming with energy,
The Tax Inspector
is unsettling, devastating and at times devastatingly funny. It dazzles and disturbs.”
San Diego Union
“To say that Carey’s brand of story-telling falls somewhere between the fabulistic experiment of the 1960s and the ultra-realism of the ’80s might be helpful, but it is not exactly fair. It is more accurate to say that he works a literary territory all his own, combining elements of absurdism, black humor, social satire and old-fashioned family saga. The writing reflects such authority and lyricism that it’s a pleasure to enter without a quibble Carey’s marvelously wacky, profoundly moving world.”
“This is a work of fiction that, with the unfailing elegance of Carey’s prose … [and] with its penetrating, cold-eyed gaze, makes something out of squalor and evil from which you cannot take your own eyes away.”
“[Carey is a] commanding Australian writer with a laser eye for detail and luxuriant narrative gifts.”
Wall Street Journal
“Carey’s antic worlds recall the pop art landscapes of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon in their clownish instability, their subservience to a cruel destiny. Beneath [his] hallucinogenic prose lurks the menacing sight of a satirist on the edge—a metaphysical joker. His flair for the unexpected but telling simile … and his powers of mordant description remain fresh.”
“Peter Carey is to Sydney what Joyce was to Dublin … an absolute master of language and of storytelling. Get your money on him as one of the great figures on the cusp of the millennium.”
“Peter Carey has an approach to the novel destined to make him one of the most widely read and admired writers working in English.”
Times Literary Supplement
In the morning Cathy McPherson put three soft-boiled eggs outside Benny Catchprice’s door and in the afternoon she fired him from the Spare Parts Department. That’s who she was – his father’s sister. They were both the same – big ones for kissing and cuddling, but you could not predict them. You could not rely on them for anything important. They had great soft lips and they had a family smell, like almost-rancid butter which came from deep in their skin, from the thick shafts of their wiry hair; they smelt of this, from within them, but also of things they had touched or swallowed – motor oil, radiator hoses, Lifesavers, different sorts of alcohol – beer, Benedictine, altar wine on Sundays. She was the one who stroked his ear with her small guitar-calloused fingers and whispered, ‘I love you little Ben-Ben,’ but she was still a Catchprice and it was not a contradiction that she fired him.
Cathy was married to Howie who had a pencil-line moustache, a ducktail, and a secret rash which stopped in a clean line at his collar and the cuffs of his shirt. He had the ducktail because he was a Rock-a-Billy throwback: Sleepy La Beef, Charlie Feathers, Mickey Gilley, all the losers of Rock ’n’ Roll, they were his heroes. He had this rash because he hated Catchprice Motors but no one ever said that. Cathy and Howie sat behind the counter of the Spare Parts Department as if they were Shire engineers or pharmacists. They had a Waiting Room. They set it up with ferns and pots and pans so it smelled of damp and chemical fertilizer and rotting sawdust. In the places on the wall where any normal car business had charts of K.L.G. spark plugs and colour calendars from Turtle Wax, they had the photograph of Cathy shaking hands with Cowboy Jack Clement, the framed letter from Ernest Tubb, the photograph of the band on stage at the Tamworth Festival: Craig on bass guitar, Kevin on drums, Steve Putzel on piano, and Cathy herself out front with a bright red Fender and huge, snake-skin boots she got mail order from
Music City News
. The band was called Big Mack. If they had paid as much attention to Catchprice Motors as they paid to it, there would have been no crisis ever.
Until the Friday afternoon they fired him, Benny worked on the long bench which ran at right angles to the front counter where Cath and Howie sat like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Behind him were the deep rows of grey metal bins, above his head was the steel mesh floor of the body panel racks. In front of him was a sweaty white brick wall and a single turquoise G.E. fan which swung back and forth but which was never pointed the right way at the right time.
He was sixteen years old. He had unwashed brown hair which curled up behind his ears and fell lankly over his left eye. He had slender arms and a collar-bone which formed a deep well between his neck and shoulder. He worked with a Marlboro in his mouth, a Walkman on his head, a Judas Priest T-shirt with vents cut out and the sleeves slashed so you could see the small shiny scar on his upper right arm. There was a blue mark around the scar like ink on blotting paper – he had tried to make a tattoo around it but the scratches got seriously infected and whatever words were written there were lost. He had a dark blurry fuzz on his sweaty lip, and bright blue cat’s eyes full of things he could not tell you.
Those eyes were like gas jets in a rust-flaked pipe. They informed everything you felt about him, that he might, at any second, be ringed with heat – a peacock, something creepy.
Benny rode the length of the counter on a six-wheeled brown swivel chair, from computer to microfiche, from black phone to green phone. He slid, sashayed, did 360° turns, kicking the concrete floor with his size ten Doc Martens combat boots. He had long legs. He was fast and almost perfect. He ordered in parts ex-stock, entered the inventory for monthly delivery and daily delivery and special runs. He made phone quotations to ten different panel shops, to Steve-oh, Stumpy, Mr Fish. He was expert and familiar with them and they gave him a respect he could never get in Catchprice Motors which benefited most from his professionalism.
He hunted by phone and by computer for – to give a for instance – a Jackaroo brake calliper which General Motors at Dandenong said was a definite N/A and est. 12 weeks ex-Japan. It was hot and sweaty back there, with no air but the fan, and dust falling from the steel mesh floor above his head. It was also stressful, no one said it wasn’t, and he was good at most of it, but she fired him.
He was shocked and humiliated, but she was the one doing the crying. She offered him a job in the front office – serving petrol! Serving petrol! Her chin was crumpled and her wide nose was creased. You could smell the butter in her hair and the Benedictine on her breath.
She knew what being fired meant to him. They had sat together at her kitchen table at three and four in the morning, he smoking dope, she drinking Benedictine and Coke, while her old man was snoring in the bedroom. She was the forty-five-year-old who was still planning her escape. Not him. He wanted this life. It was all he ever wanted.
But now she was saying he was ‘not sufficiently involved’. He was too stunned to say anything back, not even a threat. But when she was back at the front counter, he thought he understood – she imagined he made mistakes because he listened to comedy tapes on the Walkman. She saw him laughing and thought he was not serious.
The truth was: he wore the Walkman to block out the dumb things she and Howie said. They were so loud and confident. They went on and on in some kind of croaking harmony – her bar-smoke voice and his bass mumble. They were like two old birds who had been in one shitty cage all their lives.
He liked his aunt. She was more his mate than his aunt, but her ignorance could be embarrassing. She was frightened of bankruptcy and her fear destroyed what little judgement she had. He turned up the volume on ‘Derek and Clive Live’ and laughed at the lobsters up Jayne Mansfield’s arse. Cathy and Howie were killing the business one dumb little bit at a time and Benny could not bear to listen to them do it.
He did not deny his own mistakes, but they were truly minor in comparison. Every part he dealt with had at least seven digits. What anyone else would call a Camira engine mount was a 5434432 to Benny. These digits jumped places, transposed themselves, leap-frogged. They were like mercury in his fingers as he tried to keep them still: 6’s rolled over, 2’s and 5’s leap-frogged and 4’s turned into 7’s. Benny’s wrists were covered in numbers. Numbers stretched along his long fingers like tattoos, across his palms like knitting, but he still made errors.
He was asked to put in an order for three dozen 2965736 electrical connectors. The next day the truck turned up with thirty-six 2695736 Bedford bumper bars, all non-returnable. He put in an express order for a body shell of a 92029932S Commodore Station Wagon but he typed 92029933S instead so they delivered a sedan body and an invoice for $3,985.00.
These were serious mistakes. They saw him laughing at ‘Derek and Clive Live’ and thought he did not care. The opposite was true: every mistake made him hot with shame. It was his business. He was the one who was going to have to rescue Catchprice Motors from the mess they had made and carry it into the twenty-first century. He was the one who was going to find the cash to pay for their old people’s home, who would buy them their little pastel blue tellies to put beside their beds. He would care for them the way they never cared for him – even Mort, his father – he would shame them.
So when he was fired from Spare Parts by his sole protector he was not only humiliated in front of the mechanics – who hated him for his mistakes and went out at night to the pub to celebrate – he was also pushed into a crisis, and the light in his eyes looked to be blown right out. He was dog shit. He had no other plan for life. He was a car dealer.
Of course the Catchprices were all car dealers, or they were known in Franklin as car dealers, but Benny was alone in wishing to describe himself that way. The others accepted the label even while they dreamed of losing it. They were Catchprices,
G.M. dealers from Franklin near Sydney in the State of New South Wales.
The family had been in Franklin when it had been a country town with a population of 3,000 people and limited commercial potential. Then it was twenty miles from Sydney and in the bush. Now it was twenty miles from Sydney and almost in the city and there was no Sydney Road any more – there was the F4 instead, and when it left Franklin it passed through two miles of deserted farm land and then the suburbs started.
Franklin was no longer a town. It was a region. The population was 160,000 and they had bulldozed the old Shire Hall to make municipal offices six storeys high. Benny could tell you the value of the rates the Shire collected each year: $26 million. There was drug addiction and unemployment it is true, but there were airline pilots and dentists out along the Gorge. They came tooling down the F4 in Porsches and Volvos.
All of this should have been good for business, but Catchprice Motors, a collection of soiled and flaking white stucco buildings with barley-sugar columns and arched windows, had somehow got itself isolated from the action. It was stranded out on the north end of Loftus Street opposite the abandoned boot-maker’s and bakery. Loftus Street fed the stream of the F4, but the commercial centre had shifted to a mall half a mile to the south and there were now many people, newcomers to the area, to whom the name Catchprice had no meaning at all. They did not know there was a G.M. dealership tucked away between A.S.P. Building Supplies and the Franklin District Ambulance Centre.
There was a sign, of course, which said
and most of the Catchprices lived right behind it. Gran Catchprice’s windows looked out through the holes in the letters ‘A’ and ‘P’. Her grown-up son, Benny’s father, lived in a red-brick bungalow which fitted itself against the back wall of the workshop like a shelf fungus against a eucalyptus trunk and her married daughter, Cathy, had taken over the old place above the lube bay.
The Catchprices clustered around the quartz-gravel heart of the business. Time-switched neon lights lay at their centre. The odours of sump oil and gasoline sometimes penetrated as far as their linen closets. They were in debt to the General Motors Acceptance Corporation for $567,000.
That Sunday night following Benny’s dismissal, two members of the family kept him company. They sat above the showroom where the late Albert (‘Cacka’) Catchprice had sold his first 1946 Dodge to Jack Iggulden. In those days the rooms above the showroom had been Cacka’s offices, but now they were his widow’s home. The glass display case which had once displayed bottled snakes and sporting trophies now held Frieda Catchprice’s famous collection of bride dolls. There were eighty-nine of them. They were all frizzy, frilly, with red lips and big eyes. They occupied the entire back wall of her living-room.
Granny Catchprice was eighty-six years old. She liked to smoke Salem cigarettes. When she put one in her mouth, her lower lip stretched out towards it like a horse will put out its lip towards a lump of sugar. She was not especially self-critical, but she knew how she looked when she did this – an old tough thing. She was not a tough thing. She made jokes about her leaking roof but she was frightened there was no money to fix it. She made jokes, also, about the state of the bride dolls behind the glass display case. She liked to say, ‘Us girls are getting on,’ but the truth was she could not even look at the dolls, their condition upset her so. She would walk into the room and look up towards the neon tubes, or down towards the white-flecked carpet. She ducked, dodged, avoided. She always sat at the one place at her dining table, with her back hard against the case of dolls. The glass on the case was smeared. Sometimes it became all clouded up with condensation and the dolls had streaks of mould and mildew which, at a distance, looked like facial hair.
When she sat with her back to the dolls on Sunday night she had to face her youngest grandson. She would have preferred not to see how his spine was curved over and how his animated eyes had gone quite dead. He was not bright, had never been bright, could still not spell ‘vehicle’ or ‘chassis’ but he had a shining will she had always thought was like her own. She did not necessarily like him, but he was like a stringy weed that could get slashed and trampled on and only come back stronger because of it. Of all the things she had ever expected of him, this was the last – that he should allow himself to be destroyed.
She gave him a big white-dentured smile. ‘Well,’ she told him. ‘The worst accidents happen at sea.’
He did not seem to hear her.
She looked across at his brother for support. She had dragged that one out here all the way from the Hare Krishna temple in Kings Cross but now he was here she could see that he was more frightened by his brother’s collapse than she was. His name was Johnny but now he was a Hare Krishna he would not answer to it. He was Vishnabarnu – Vish – he looked at her and gave a little shrug. He had his grandfather’s big knobbly chin and wide nose, and when he shrugged he squinched up his eyes just like Cacka used to do and she thought he would be no use to anyone.
He had the same neck as his grandfather as well, and those sloping strong shoulders and the huge calves which knotted and unknotted when he walked. He would be no real use, but she liked to have him near her and she had to stop herself reaching out to touch his saffron kurta with her nicotine-stained fingers. He was so clean – she could smell washed cotton, soap, shaving cream.
‘It’s not worth being upset about,’ Vish was telling Benny. ‘It’s a dream. Think of it as a dream.’
Benny looked at Vish and blinked. It was the first thing to actually engage his attention.
‘That’s right,’ Vish said, speaking in the way you coax a baby’s arms into its sleeves, or a nervous horse into its bridle. ‘That’s right.’
Benny opened his mouth wide – ah.
Vish leaned across the table on his elbows, squinting and frowning. He peered right into the darkness of Benny’s open mouth. Then he turned to his grandmother who was in her big chair with her back to the dolls’ case.