A first novel from Australian author Meehan, whose young protagonist, like a Cormac McCarthy boy, is compelled by enormous emotional confusion to undertake a perilous journey that pits him against nature for survival.
Skinny, uncomfortable in his skin, the boy “wrapped himself in his father’s heavy peajacket and wore it even through the high heat of the day,” along with a “battered army slouch” and “heavy boots that . . . needed the aid of rolled newspaper and bandages just to stay on his feet.” He has two idols: Joe Spencer, a strong, muscular farmhand; and Cabel Singh, a storytelling hawker from India with legendary knowledge of the Outback. As the boy tries to understand through them the route to manhood, into his seething thoughts and the family farm stumbles Eileen, a wild, sensual girl-woman. When she disappears, leaving behind a bloody dress, the boy’s journey into the Outback begins. When a writer like Meehan is compared to Faulkner and McCarthy, a reader expects stylish prose to abound. And it does here. In the night, the boy steals from his bed and rounds up his old pony and “pup” and leaves to track Cabel, hoping to find Eileen—the action spans 11 pages. Faulkner reigns here. But at the end of the second act, the story broadens jarringly. Across the rough Outback terrain, a man comes peddling strenuously on an old, decrepit bike. They meet, and soon the man philosophizes about Cabel Singh and life, especially his own war experience and subsequent stay in Paris. Becket! From philosopher to dead man in a tree dressed in red-and-white striped pajamas, from beginning to fiery end, the boy encounters bizarre situations, following in the footsteps of his storytelling idol, physically and metaphorically.
A bold, stylized debut that doesn’t always work, yet is mainly compelling.