A filmmaker and a prehistoric predecessor muse on humanity and mortality.
Booker Prize–winning novelist Keneally (Crimes of the Father, 2017, etc.) tells the parallel tales of aging filmmaker Shelby Apple and Learned Man, an Australian mystic of 42,000 years ago. Both men confront serious problems. Apple has cancer, and Learned Man must interpret and enforce the sometimes-deadly justice of the gods. Keneally offers a few vivid scenes, such as the Vietnam battle that catapulted Apple to cinematic fame. Such moments are outweighed by the sometimes head-scratching interludes in which Learned Man describes his people’s ways: “My first boy, not my Son Unnameable, was killed by a curse that overtook his mouth when he was still young and swelled his head to a dreadful size. Afterwards, our clan marched forth with spears to face the Parrot clan, and we contested them on the ground of war until a necessary measure of blood had been shed.” Big topics are addressed: manhood, love, war, humanity’s past and future, the meaning of life, the nature of death. (The book was released in Australia as Two Old Men Dying.) But Apple isn’t engaging in his ponderings, and Learned Man’s world befuddles as often as it intrigues. The women in both eras are strong but mostly serve as objects of men’s affection or lust—and those prehistoric sex scenes should maybe have been taken out back and buried. ("After she had healed my plant, demanding now and then that I not succumb yet and give her my sap too early, she eased herself backwards onto the fur and that great passage of hers was mine to go into. How we toiled.”)
Dedicated readers might excavate nuggets of wisdom, but most will wonder if the expedition was worth it.