An uneasy amalgam of razor realism and solipsistic fantasy, this idiosyncratic first novel fitfully evokes the rough and tumble world of the coarse men who lay rails in the Australian desert. Britisher Parsons' literary aspirations run high: he tells his story in a nearly extinct mode, the ""God's-eye"" point of view that lends to its first-person narrator omniscence and omnipresence. But ""God"" here is an odd beast, a disembodied consciousness that yearns for corporeality and rages at the brutality of the men: ""Those callous cold-hearted bastards! O what a thing the soul of Relay Gang No. I must be! O a clogged and deadened thing to have so little noticed the wrench from its midst."" The ""wrench"" referred to is the death of the Canberran of the title, a lonely, quiet man who, with a callous youth named ""Lofty,"" shows up one day at the Relay Gang's work camp deep in the blistering Nullabor desert. Slowly, the two are drawn into the frightening, vicious milieu of the Gang: of old Hogg, who slides slowly into madness from overwork and heat; of Otto the German, whose bombastic, obnoxious ways win him beating after beating; of Princess Alice, an unwashed gay teased and tortured by the others; of an additional slew of colorful characters, each equally repulsive. But while ""Lofty"" integrates into the Gang, dazzling them at poker--Parsons' detailed descriptions of tense games occupy a large chunk of the narrative--the Canberran remains aloof until the day he dies of heat stroke. Although his death occasions some muttering (Lofty failed to feed the Canberran necessary salt when he fell), it changes nothing, and the men's stupid, claustrophic life simple goes on, observed by the mysterious, all-knowing narrator, until Lofty drifts away. Lengthy stretches of dazzling, freewheeling writing distinguish this difficult novel, but its feverish approach, and the unrelenting unpleasantness of its characters and milieu, will dismay most readers.