A bloated first novel from Australia.
The opening promises suspense. Narrator Jasper Dean is in prison; his father’s body, he confides, will never be found. The suggestion of foul play, though, is a misleading tease. Moving back in time, the father, Martin, takes over as narrator; he and Jasper switch roles throughout. Martin tells of growing up in a bush town dominated by a prison. He and his younger half-brother Terry ask its most hardened criminal to mentor them in a life of crime. Terry is a quick study and starts killing sports celebrities tainted by drugs or bribes; he’s an overnight sensation in sports-mad Australia, but is eventually caught and locked up. Martin’s mother is dying of cancer while feeding Martin rat poison (don’t ask); then both parents die in a fire which also destroys Terry and the town. Martin escapes to Paris and meets kooky Astrid; they make a baby (Jasper) before Astrid kills herself and Martin returns to Australia with Jasper. They have a complicated love-hate relationship, originating in Martin’s belief that “this baby is me prematurely reincarnated.” Martin is as weird as Terry was violent. We now get a second coming-of-age story, Jasper’s, which is upstaged by Martin’s antics; these make him as hated by his fellow Australians as Terry was loved. Toltz sometimes paints with a broad brush on a large canvas, sometimes highlights the minutiae of messy relationships: In neither area is he convincing. His plot twists include suicides (five) and transformations. He whisks father and son off to Thailand, where there are huge surprises. A dead character has been alive all along! A lifelong friend is in fact a bitter enemy! We end, exhausted, back in Australia.
One thing after another in a novel that wallows in excess.