No Words Wasted Sale

Monday, January 14th, 2002


The Tax Inspector

by Peter Carey

A review by Ann Ellenbecker

Peter Carey is best known for his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, both of which explore the origins and nature of the Australian character. But readers of these acclaimed works may not realize that Carey has a seamier side. Carey, now a New Yorker, grew up in Australia, where his parents ran a General Motors dealership. He borrowed these details from his own life for the setting of his fourth novel, The Tax Inspector. I hope that's where the biographical similarity ends. For the family at the heart of this novel is as sordid and dysfunctional as any portrayed in recent fiction. Delving into their lives is like watching a fatal car crash. It's gruesome and disgusting, yet you can't look away. I couldn't. I wanted to absorb every last repugnant page.

The story is set over the course of four days in an anything-but-average week, beginning on Monday with our introduction to Benny Catchprice. Benny is sixteen and has just been fired from the family business by his aunt, Cathy. But, as Benny's life is unveiled, it's clear this is the least of his worries. Dysfunction is too nice a word for the boy. He lives in a cellar filled with jars of reptiles encased in mysterious liquids. The floor is covered by a sickly pool navigable only by the lumber-bridges that span the room. Furthermore, Benny believes himself to be an angel, with wing tattoos covering his back to "prove" it. This delusional, angelic fantasy is probably borne from the fact that he's living in hell.

Hell in this case includes the sorely unprofitable Catchprice Motors. Benny not only wants to continue working for the company, he plans on getting rich from it, and is determined to bring his brother Johnny into the business with him. For the past few years, Johnny's been content with his new family, the Hare Krishnas, and has no desire to return to the Catchprice fold. He can't keep his distance for long, though, and soon is pulled into their scurvy depths. Add to the mix Cathy's unfulfilled dreams of becoming a country-western singing sensation; her brother Mort's failure at marriage, business, and his iniquitous take on fatherhood; and Jack, the elusive sibling with a fanaticism for smart women. Granny Catchprice, the matriarch of this familial mess, induces the most sympathy, as her girlhood dream of a flower farm turns into corruption, perversion and axle grease. Carey paints her with a forgiving stroke despite her moldy house, bouts of forgetfulness, and incredible denial of the family's past (and present), and, of course, the explosives in her purse. The complacency of the family discontent is forever altered when eight-month pregnant tax inspector Maria Takis is called in to audit the dealership, and Benny's creepy obsession with her begins.

The entire story is covered in thick, tar-like humor, delivered with deadpan wit as dry as the martini you'll need to get you through these four apocalyptic days. The whole thing feels dirty. Not dirty like HBO late-night. But, dirty like a city street in a bad neighborhood. Dirty like a back-alley speakeasy. Dirty like thieving Mafia cheats. And, underneath all the soot and grime lies an incredibly compelling tale. Compelling because it's clear that Carey is so charmed by these misfits he evokes a compassion that keeps the cast of characters from turning into strange comic book representations of themselves.

As more revelations unfold, shock turns into understanding at what was, of course, the inevitable reasoning behind the madness. One moment there is obvious reason to despise and blame one character, only to find later that you've become so involved and concerned that you excuse their actions, and feel their pain. Carey has taken this motley crew of good-for-nothings and made you care about them and their outcome.

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