The Tax Inspector

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his early collections of short stories, The Fat Man in History (1974) and War Crimes (1979), and in the three novels that followed, Peter Carey placed fully realized characters in solidly constructed settings, then deftly moved them into fantastic situations. Such is the case with the transitions between life and death of Harry Joy, the hero in Bliss (1981). The central character in Illywhacker (1985), Herbert Badgery, admits he is a liar, an “illywhacker” (an Australian slang term for con artist), and he consistently blurs the distinctions between the real and the unreal. Oscar and Lucinda (1988) unfolds the mundane history of its title characters, two devoted gamblers whose lives take on the qualities of a game that is both dream and actuality.

Carey continues this trickery in The Tax Inspector, proving once again that he considers the novelist—at least himself—a kind of “illywhacker,” the master of conning, the liar, the trickster, the fabricator, finally the unreliable narrator. After leading his readers on a merry chase through the present and past, he directs them toward a future that is apocalyptic in its dimensions. In the process, he manages the difficult feat of intertwining comedy and tragedy just as these two elements coexist in day-to-day life.

The Tax Inspector covers four days—Monday through Thursday—in the lives of the Catchprice family and a pregnant tax inspector who has been assigned to audit the family car agency. A neglected and failing operation, Catchprice Motors is located in the dreary suburbs of Australia’s major city, Sydney. As well as housing the once- successful General Motors dealership, the place also serves as home for most of the family. The location is described economically but fully: “the lot” where the cars are on display, the parts department, the offices, the repair shop, and the family quarters. The day-to-day operations of the business receive the same kind of attention. The setting expands into far more than a carefully rendered picture of shabby homes and a place to sell and repair automobiles. It gradually evolves into a metaphor that stands for the failed lives—past and present—of its inhabitants. When Maria, the innocent tax inspector, drives up for the first time, she too finds herself entangled in this place that manages to be both realistic in its past and present contexts, and surrealistic in its futuristic vision.

Hovering over the tightly constructed action of the four days in the present is the Catchprice past of some fifty or so years—a past full of resentment, child molestation and sexual perversions, lies, discarded ambitions and corruption, violence, failure, deception, and illusions. To a degree, Catchprice Motors, its owners, and their visitors also serve as a microcosm of contemporary society. The novel is satirical as it addresses such subjects as social pretensions, destruction of the environment for profit, urban sprawl, economics, single parenthood, the Hare Krishnas, and tax evasion. That the action takes place in Sydney makes it no less relevant to the reader who resides in London, Ontario, or San Francisco. After all, a story must take place somewhere, and it is altogether admirable that the novel allows the Australian experience to speak so widely. Carey continues to set his fiction in his native land even though he has lived in New York for several years. For him, Australia is a metaphor, the basis of which—the land, the people, the social milieu, the language—he knows well and can transform into fiction that transcends place.

Not only are the action and setting of The Tax Inspector skillfully rendered and often clearly satirical in their intent, but the characters themselves are also well defined. Even though they can be...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)