Isn’t that a stunning front cover? It’s one of those rare moments when the designer gets it exactly, but exactly right. The author of this fetching tome, Joel Deane, doesn’t pull off quite so flawless a performance between the covers (as it were) but he comes perilously close. So close it hurts.
Farrell is not having a good night.
He’s got a shift in a taxi that he doesn’t really want, he’s only had time to have a beer for breakfast and he’s been thoroughly beaten up by a transvestite. Then, just as things couldn’t possibly get any worse, he picks up a fare: an ancient man called Bob who has some interesting luggage. To be specific about it, Bob has a mummified human head, a journal bound in human skin and an ivory dildo with an intricate scrimshaw pattern on it. All in a hat-box.
Bob is on his very last legs: he’s intent on taking a last trip down memory lane and he needs Farrell to drive him to a series of locations – stopping off on the way to visit a prostitute and a priest (in that order, naturally). On the way, Bob regales Farrell with tales of the Western Front, and the strange series of events that led Bob (who was, after the war, a journalist) to The Norseman.
As for the Norseman… Well… He’s not really lived what you’d call a life of froth and bubbles either. Born on a ship making its way from The Old World to the New, his life (such as it is) abruptly falls apart when his parents die and he runs away from his cruel and bitter foster father. Winding up in New York, he kills two teenagers who – literally – pissed on him from a great height. Displaying an admirable gift for convenient theology, The Norseman decides that he is the instrument of God’s vengeance.
After a stint as a ship-builder, our Norseman ends up on a series of whaling vessels (swab the decks and haul away for Rosie, etc.), inflicting God’s wrath on the cetacean populations of the watery deeps. Eventually, the Norseman embarks on a whaling voyage under Captain Turner on a ship he once helped to build. And then things really start to fall apart.
The Norseman’s Song comes to us in chapters which alternate between Bob and Farrell’s journey and episodes from the diary of the Norseman. Structurally and conceptually, this is unmistakably a Gothic novel.
This novel is in many ways a remarkable achievement. There are three quite different voices at work: Farrell’s, Bob’s and the Norseman’s and Deane shifts between them with aplomb and barely a false step. The distinctions between the voices, it must be admitted, lack subtlety, but the voices themselves never lack interest.
The supporting cast of characters is itself wonderfully varied: the alcoholic photographer Billy Bailey (who has an ear-lobe shot off by a crazed digger who is convinced that Bolsheviks are systematically killing his sheep) Jimmy the Greek (Farrell’s boss, who refers to even the most dilapidated cab as a ‘Helenic chariot’), Grady (the greatest talent the Geelong Football Club never signed: ‘I, um, love footy… it was, footy was, my, um, life, I suppose’) and a mad host of others.
Deane’s prose is as tightly knotted and stinging as a cat o’ nine tails when he wants it to be, misty and ambiguous when he wants it to be and unmistakably of an era when he wants it to be. We’re in the hands of someone who can really write. This is a novel that you can put down, but when you put it down, you do so to roll a sentence around your mouth a second time and then whistle in appreciation.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been so desperate for a novel not to disappoint me at the last. The fact that it did (though only slightly) is quite predictable, I suppose – Deane built up such a huge amount of energy in the tale that any ending would have fallen short of the ideal. I don’t want to suggest for a second that this disfigures the novel – not a jot. But it left a little something lacking.
The Norseman’s Song is a picture of lives that are unutterably bleak, and has moments of humour that are so black they’re sometimes hard to take. But it doesn’t feel like a novel that is completely realised. Deane has an enviable grasp of history, moral niceties and character, but Norseman’s leaves you with the strange feeling that something was left unsaid.
If that’s deliberate, it’s a bold move. But I suspect that something was still niggling away at the author, and never quite found its way onto the last page.