Booker-winning novelist Carey (The True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001, etc.) turns in a “distorted” tour of Sydney during last year’s Olympic Games.
Though this “Writer and the City” series promises musings from well-regarded writers on “the city they know best,” Carey is originally from Melbourne, and didn’t live in that “vulgar crooked convict town” of Sydney until he was almost 40—and most of the time since, he has lived as a resident alien in New York. With the idiosyncratic notion of describing Sydney in terms of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, Carey spends his 30 days with old cronies, architects and artists for the most part, all grown older, their wildness mostly behind them. His friends tell good stories, and through them Carey offers bits and pieces of the essence of Sydney: a little-known eccentric who painted “Eternity” in hundreds of unlikely places; sailors reliving the disastrous Sydney-to-Hobart race of 1998; how to catch a kingfish; and most appealingly, the story of Sheridan, an ex-hippie soap-opera writer who has holed himself up in a cave in the austere Blue Mountains to write a novel. (The Olympics are mostly ignored, regarded mainly as an intrusion.) Carey weaves in the history of Sydney’s founding: the unsuitability of the land for farming; the absence of lime (needed to make mortar for laying bricks); the abuse of aborigines by the convict settlers, who were themselves abused. That convict history still informs the Australian character, Carey says, an observation commonly made. Carey’s style is a pleasure, but his point is a bit hard to make out, unless one wants to take his effort as a long prose poem—an approach to travel-writing not likely to find many readers.
Not so much “wildly distorted,” it turns out, as disjointed and unfocused.