David Foster, ‘Man of Letters: Dog Rock 3’ in The Australian
Postmodern postie delivers the goods
James Ley, The Australian, 29 September 2012
At the risk of appearing superficial, it must be said that David Foster’s Man of Letters is worth seeking out for its cover. The adorning photograph of a comely cow-shaped mailbox is surely one of the funniest images to grace a work of fiction.
It is fitting, too. Foster is a funny writer, and often a cheeky one. His many novels are notable for the scale of their intellectual ambitions, but also for the comic brio with which their satirical targets are pursued.
Foster broke a seven year silence in 2009 with Sons of the Rumour, a bold reimagining of The Arabian Nights that ranks as one of his finest achievements, and though his latest novel is slight in comparison, it is nevertheless a witty addition to one of the richest and mist idiosyncratic bodies of work in Australian literature.
Man of Letters is the third book in a series that includes Dog Rock (1985) and The Pale Blue Crochet Coathanger Cover (1988). All three are detective story parodies narrated by D’Arcy D’Oliveres, the displaced English aristocrat turned small town Australian postman, who also features in Foster’s best-know work, the Miles Franklin-winning The Glade Within the Grove (1996).
The plot of Man of Letters involves not one but several mysteries. D’Arcy initially returns to the rural hamlet of Dog Rock to find out who is responsible for including an obscure local musician named Ross Commoner in a series of stamps celebrating Australian legends of Popular Song, dudding Neil Finn in the process. (Yes, Finn is a New Zealander. But as D’Arcy points out, it is typical of those lazy Kiwis to leave it up to Australia to honour their legends for them.)D’Arcy soon finds himself caught in the detective genre’s obligatory web of intrigue. Not only does no one seem to know who caused the car accident that has left a young Indian woman in a coma but a Bunnings gift voucher has gone missing and someone has emasculated poor Roscoe, beloved cat of Ross’s sister Coralie, whom D’Arcy rather fancies (Coralie, that is, not the cat).
The travestying of the conventions of detective fiction, on one level, is a pretext to get D’Arcy back on his old mail route so he can tour the town, interact with the locals and muse about the many changes he encounters. But the novel’s shaggy dog quality is wedded to an awareness of the way in which a detective story can function as a metaphor for a wider pursuit of coherence and meaning.
One of the running jokes in Man of Letters is the unusual prevalence of vanity licence plates in Dog Rock. Ross, suspiciously, has exchanged his defiant IOU FA plates for the more polite GRAZIA. Unfortunately, D’Arcy’s sparring partner, Sergeant Cadwalloper, who has a burgeoning interest in semiotics (he is writing a PhD thesis on offensive bumper stickers), is obliged to point out that these apparent clues are merely floating representamens whose meaning is indeterminate.
The narrative itself, which proceeds through many twists and re-evaluations, is a wrestle with the threat of incoherence. This is associated with the modern world’s encroachments and the way these are seen to be corroding the pastoral idyll of Dog Rock. There was a time, D’Arcy opines, when his work as a mailman gave him the kind of intimate knowledge of the town’s geography and its inhabitants that allowed him to detect an underlying pattern. But no longer. His aim becomes not only to solve the mystery of Ross Commoner’s unaccountable philatelic honour but to solve the puzzle of how to make an accumulation of atomised signs into something meaningful, in defiance of what Cadwallopper calls the “age of distraction”.
It is a big theme for a small book, though Foster doesn’t make it seem onerous. He keeps the story ticking along and the mood playful. The Dog Rock novels sit at the congenial end of the spectrum of his often irascible and combative fiction. Man of Letters has some satirical sport with the proliferating acronyms and abbreviations of modern English, but its comical depiction of the townspeople is affectionate and forgiving. Their sometimes peculiar behaviour is, as D’Arcy frequently has reason to remind himself, merely the manifestation of each person striving to achieve his or her ends.
Much of the novel’s charm resides in D’Arcy’s avuncular persona. One of its narrative conceits is that he addresses the reader directly; he even asks for a helping hand occasionally. To read Man of Letters is, in effect, to be enlisted as his sidekick. The performance is sustained on the strength of Foster’s mastery of the Australian vernacular and the agreeable strain of larrikin humour that has long sustained his fiction. The irreverent intelligence of writing is evident on every page. As D’Arcy boasts near the beginning of the novel: “Once I don my plastic maillot jaune and kick-start that Honda, watch out for insight”.
The Australian, 29 September 2012 (review no longer online)