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Carey follows in traditions of Kipling, Conrad

Sunday, November 30, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The British Empire covered a lot of ground, and its echoes linger wonderfully in the imaginations of writers.

"A funny thing happened to me on the road to Mandalay. I got hit by a flying fish," Kipling might have said in prefacing yet another tale of exotic lands where his fellow countrymen and a few women tramped like conquerors among the natives.

 
 

"My Life as a Fake"

By Peter Carey
Knopf ($24)

   
 
 

Joseph Conrad had a different take on the Western intrusion in those steamy and mysterious places a world away from Piccadilly Circus, but he, too, recognized their seductive nature.

Australian Peter Carey now joins them in his new novel following his Booker Prize-winning "True History of the Kelly Gang." In his hands, the Empire's citizens never seemed so tawdry and down-at-the mouth.

As in his earlier novels, Carey draws on a bit of history to launch his fictional excursions. He takes the story of an Australian poetry hoax from the 1940s and turns it into a rather exciting and, at times, compelling tale about, well, many things. It's up to the reader, I think, to decide.

The narrator is the fading Sara Wode- Douglass, who dabbles at editing a minor London poetry magazine. A family friend, John Slater, who is tenuously connected to the suicide of Sara's mother, coaxes her to accompany him to Malaysia.

Slater is a Kiplingesque figure, a celebrity writer of dubious distinction who picks up the tabs, flirts with the waitresses and unwittingly, or wittingly, introduces Sara to the greatest experience of her life.

We're never quite sure why Sara has come to Kuala Lumpur until Christopher Chubb surfaces. Slater blanches at his discovery and tries to discourage Sara from meeting him. Luckily for us, she doesn't listen.

The Aussie Chubb is notorious for creating the fictional Bob McCorkle, a kind of natural poet of the Outback, and foisting him on David Weiss, a Sydney literary editor, just after the war.

Weiss publishes "McCorkle's" poems (written by Chubb), is sued for obscenity, then dies, perhaps by his own hand, when the fraud is exposed.

Sara is hooked. Chubb is a cliffhanger storyteller whose yarns carry her around the Indonesian islands in his tortured journey.

His quest is his own fake: McCorkle. It seems the power of imagination or poetry or just Carey's playfulness has made the flesh real -- all 7 feet of him. And there is a collection of his poetry which Sara hungers for.

To add further fantasy, McCorkle has kidnapped Chubb's daughter.

It's this fantastic leap that reminds us of Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" and his larger-than-life character of Kurtz deep in the wilderness. But who is Kurtz: Chubb or McCorkle?

Murder and mayhem do indeed ensue. People are not what they appear to be. Fakes are real.

Despite a drawn-out escape sequence near the book's end, Carey masterfully holds our attention with both story and character.

"My Life as a Fake" is the real thing.


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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