Who will we bump into next, you wonder - Dame Kiri Packer? Mercifully not, though the misanthropic, empyhysema-racked Nobel prize- winning novelist with whom the narrator has such an uneasy relationship looks pretty unmistakeable here as a paler shade of Patrick White. I wish I could report that these figures feature in a tight, penetrating satire on media mores Stateside and Down Under. The truth, alas, is that such a clef capers are merely a sort of pointless playfulness, vitiating a novel already in several minds about what it wants to be.
The title-character is an affable Aussie sport who has become a star of US morning television by talking his way on-camera into the homes of ordinary (and far from ordinary) folk, like some one-man version of Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch. Jacko Emptor's various adventures (his quest for a veteran's missing daughter which leads to the uncovering of a ghastly case of enslavement and sexual abuse; his telegenic high jinks as the Berlin Wall comes down, etc) are recounted by his New York bar-stool buddy, a globe-trotting Australian writer who also provides his own impressions of Jacko's distant birthplace, a vast isolated cattle ranch out in the Northern Territories, and his experiences with his friend's relations - the leathery, redoubtable Emptor matriarch and the effete brother, a glittering Sydney opera queen and criminally egregious cancer-fraud.
The resulting novel manages to be all of the following and none of them properly: a study of cultural differences; a quizzical look at the strength of Aussie 'mateship' and at the morally ambiguous position of the insider / outsider; a pretext that enables Keneally to sound off and settle some old scores; and a genial adventure yarn not afraid to pay a quick visit to the 'Olympics of evil'. As with this author's last and much finer novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, it is the narrator who exacerbates the book's unsureness of tone and purpose. On one hand, he functions as a mouthpiece, relaying Keneally's own views on, say, the small-mindedness of Australia's 'cultural SS' who, with their 'Aussie-meters', rate books on the strict criterion of how much is set Down Under.
On the other, his obedient trailing round after Jacko, whose nave gutsiness he can't help admiring, for all he may disapprove of his womanising, forms a picture of Australian 'mateship' that is uncertainly slung between the satiric and the straightforwardly sentimental: 'Jacko covered his eyes from daylight with both hands. This I found prodigiously affecting, and I reached out and held him by the inner elbow - a large gesture from one Australian male to another.'
The real problem is that neither Keneally nor the narrator appreciates just how unfavourable an impression our winning hero makes, and this undermines the media satire. At the Berlin Wall, for example, he has himself televised jumping up on to it and attacking its symbolic hollowness with a jackhammer, thus becoming the focus of the crowd's ecstasy. When a German youth politely appropriates the implement, we're supposed to admire Jacko even more for the speed with which he allows the boy to take over and to claim the credit for this charismatic stunt on news bulletins the world over. Some of us, though, are still reeling from Jacko's initial presumption, and from surprise that a novel with its eye on TV vices should choose to overlook it. Keneally's contrived joke, 'Caveat Emptor', may have a more practical appeal than he suspects.
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