David Foster, ‘Man of Letters’ in Australian Book Review

David Foster: Man of Letters in Australian Book Review Dec – Jan 2013

David Foster’s earlier Dog Rock novels came out of his experience as a Bundanoon postman in the 1980s. A recent brief return to his old run has provided irresistible material for a further comic foray into rural life. Dog Rock: A Postal Pastoral (1985) and The Pale Blue Crochet Coathanger Cover (1988) observed the changes in a country village under the rather flimsy cover of murder mysteries, but Foster sacrificed his postman, D’Arcy D’Oliveres, to the task of narrating The Glade Within the Grove (1996). Now, a few years after the immense achievement of Sons of the Rumour (2009), D’Arcy rides his Honda 90 again. Of course, readers need to overlook the fact that D’Arcy died of lung cancer before he could finish The Glade Within the Grove. But D’Arcy’s death is not fact, it’s fiction – so he can rise from the dead, without any need for miraculous cures or mistaken identities, to narrate Man of Letters. In this novel, he tells the locals of Dog Rock that he was dead and buried ‘only in a manner of speaking’.

If the postman’s world was in decline in the first two Dog Rock novels, in this one it is certainly on the skids. No longer part of an elaborate rule-bound institution, the Dog Rock postal deliverer is an individual contractor deprived of even the camaraderie of fellow workers. The householders (mail addressed ‘to the householder’) that irritated D’Arcy in the earlier books now comprise almost all of the mail in the town, and days of the week can be identified by catalogue deliveries for Woolworths or Bunnings. The postman’s status has diminished in proportion to the amount of personal mail, rarely handwritten, dropping into letterboxes, and he must drive a van to deliver the vast amounts of wine ordered over the Internet. In the first Dog Rock novel, local communication took the form of gossip, especially over the local telephone exchange. In Man of Letters, the telephone exchange is a building like a public toilet block, and the fax machine and mobile phone, especially the text message, have replaced more subtle and personal communication. The Dog Rock Post Office is now a trendy café where council workers stare in silent contemplation of their smartphones. D’Arcy explains that a community of 352 people, once served by five employees of Australia Post, now consists of 2753 people serviced by one postal contractor.

All this reflects current realities in Australia – ask your postwoman for confirmation. Yet, despite the sophistication of modern technology, the humble postage stamp remains a major publicity focus for Australia Post. D’Arcy’s residual loyalty to Australia Post gives an urgency to his investigation into the appearance of a ‘lifelong Dog Rock nobody’ on one of the five stamps issued by Australia Post in the Legends of Popular Song series: Nick Cave and Kamahl are the only two real-life legends. These were determined by a ballot of the two local postal workers who claim to have placed Neil Finn in the first position, so the result puts not only Australia Post but also democracy in jeopardy.

The comedy bounces from D’Arcy’s slightly pompous adherence to the rules of his institution tohis observations of the lackadaisical life of Dog Rock, as he returns to his old postal run. He is joined in his enquiries by the retired policeman Cadwalloper, now holding a degree in semiotics and noting down meaningful numberplates or ‘floating representamens’ as part of his investigation. The novel gives a proliferation of these. Even D’Arcy is willing to reduce words to a series of three-letter acronyms that occasionally catch out the reader.

This is a lot of fun at the expense of our declining communication skills, but Foster also debunks the culture of celebrity that accompanies it. Who chooses our Australian legends? Some may recall the 2010 stamp issue of Australian Legends of the Written Word (Foster, of course, was not among them). A random group of postal workers may be as good as anyone for judging such matters. All through the novel D’Arcy drops the names of Australian legends of one kind or another: you may know Stewie O’Grady and Todd Carney, Roy Higgins, and Gus Nossal, but you are unlikely to recognise others. Ross Commoner may be as worthy as Dud Leahey, the international pop star from Foster’s In the New Country (1999)– Gruncle, a local Aboriginal man, reckons he’s got a ‘bigger social conscience that Paul Kelly’. Perhaps we are kept together as a community by our shared knowledge of celebrities, regardless of their talent.

Man of Letters is on the side of the nobodies, the folk who fumble along through everyday lives, performing humble tasks beyond the reach of fame. D’Arcy and Cadwalloper share a passion for doing their jobs conscientiously, regardless of the triviality and absurdity of their tasks. The miscreant locals put up a feeble fight against a corporatised world. Yet there is a real sense of loss in this novel. Just as the beautiful handwriting of Coralie Commoner no longer graces an envelope, the SMS shorthand in D’Arcy’s exchanges provides a sketchier engagement with Dog Rock life. Dog Rockers hang on to their individuality and eccentricity in a precarious world of 3–6 character signifiers. No doubt you’ll LOL reading it, but you may feel nostalgia for the more vibrant rural community of the earlier novels.

 Susan Leve

Read the review in Australian Book Review

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