Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

You wouldn’t want a father like Marty Dean. If there is a blackout during a thunder storm he will hold a candle under his chin to show his young son Jasper “how the human face becomes a mask of evil with the right kind of lighting.”

The bedtime stories he tells are “dark and creepy tales, and each had a protagonist that was clearly a surrogate me.”

But by far his scariest story is that of Jasper’s own family. “These are the building blocks of your identity,” Jasper is told. “Polish. Jewish. Persecuted. Refugee. These are just some of the vegetables with which we make a Jasper broth.”

The broth is a rich one, and so is A Fraction of the Whole. Toltz weaves from the story of Jasper, Marty, and his notorious criminal brother Terry, a fantastical tale full of wit and malevolence. In it, a steady stream of one-liners set up a foreground chirrup against a backdrop of weirdness, fantasy and dark comedy.

The plotting is outlandish.

Terry turns serial killer to wreak revenge against corruption in Australian sport. He shoots the wilfully underperforming captain of the Australian cricket team in the stomach, then turns his gun on cheating bookies, a bent jockey, a boxer who takes a dive in the ring, and coaches who administer performance-enhancing. Quickly, sport is cleaned up, everyone plays by the rules, and Terry becomes a national hero.

Matty is plunged into a coma from the ages of four to eight, after which “Sometimes in the middle of the night when I was sound asleep I was woken by a violent shaking. It was my mother, wanting to make sure I hadn’t fallen into another coma.”

That doesn’t stop her trying to poison her son to death. The poison leaves him reeling, evoking “A feeling like walking into the middle of a Harold Pinter play and being asked immediately by a tribunal to explain it or be executed.”

In the small-town Australia of A Fraction of the Whole, mundane actions invariably have extraordinary consequences.

Anonymously, Matty places a suggestion box for townspeople to nominate improvements they would like to see made.

At first the suggestions – such as that the town’s one, severely arthritic barber retire because “this town has more bad, uneven, and downright mysterious haircuts than any town in the world” – are harmless. But malevolence creeps in. A campaign begins against Terry, who ends up confined in the asylum on the hill. To draw the poison the box is destroyed in an explosion, which happens to blind the father of Terry’s first great love.

Through it all come the one-liners.

An army recruiting officer asks: “Tell me what makes good army material?”
And gets the reply: “Light cotton?”

Here’s another: “I have nothing against children, I just wouldn’t trust one not to giggle if I accidentally stepped on a land mine.”

A Fraction of the Whole will have you laughing just when you know you shouldn’t.

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