In closing my review of Chris Flynn’s novel A Tiger in Eden, I referred to the author’s bio which tells us that he was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair and I noted there was a novel in that, for sure.
While The Glass Kingdom is not about a sumo-wrestling referee, it does centre on a travelling carnival.
Part One is narrated by Corporal Benjamin Wallace, a man I warmed to immediately (although if Ben was real, he wouldn’t take kindly to my choice of words there). I felt a great empathy for this big bear of a disfigured soldier, despite the fact that he’s a hell of a bad-assed drug dealer. Flynn is good at getting the reader to care about what should be an unsympathetic character. He certainly did that in A Tiger in Eden and he’s done it again here in The Glass Kingdom. However, my sympathy and empathy didn’t quite extend to Mikey Dempster (more about him later).
Benjamin’s injuries (sickening burns and psychological trauma) come courtesy of his tour in Uruzgan but there are other injuries dating back to his childhood when this son of a “tattooed lady who swallowed swords and danced wearing naught but her ink” (104) and a repugnant and controlling father, tried to run away from the travelling show.
Benjamin/Ben/Benji/the soljer has a way of looking at the world through blood-tinted glasses. He’s a sharp-shooting, hard-living, tough-talking guy who tells it like it is, sometimes with a wry smile:
Just as well nine mils weren’t available to young blokes in Australia. There’d be no men aged fourteen to thirty left standing. The dickheads would all shoot each other. (11)
The travelling carnival can be a lively affair but there are nights when drought and poverty and unemployment can be a drag on the spirits. Flynn has the down-and-out country family down pat:
The kids would stare at the shiny rides with their hollowed-out eyes and occasionally risk a pleading stare at their fathers. The men would gaze into the middle distance, giving a shake of the head. (15)
Inside a country pub, Ben elbows his way through “a crowd of flannel shirts” (25) where the dance floor is “obscured by a forest of thin denim legs” (27) and you can soon tell that, with his sidekick Mikey on the loose, the proverbial is going to hit the fan. When it does, the fight scene comes to life frighteningly on the page.
It’s a very Australian novel in a kind of outback, commodore-loving, laconic way where drivers chuck “a skidding uey” (52) and fights break out in pubs at the drop of a hat. “A Mustang’s all well and good,” muses Ben about his girlfriend’s dream car “until the fucken exhaust falls off in the middle of the Hume” (48).
In this first part, the character of Mikey is an absolute gem and a perfect foil for the taciturn Ben. Mikey, with his outrageously funny hip-hop rap is basically a “grommet from Freo” (13) [for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang; that’s a young surfer from Fremantle in Western Australia] who’s hoisting up his pants and puffing out his chest and trying to make some sort of mark on the world without expending too much energy.
Part Two ‘Voltan, Master of Electricity’, is narrated by an ageing electrician and life-long member of the travelling Fair whose memories will fade as his dementia increases and this section serves as a clever device to highlight some of the difficulties Ben endured as a youngster. Voltan’s reminiscences help to solidify our sympathy for Ben:
He left the Kingdom for good, one fateful autumn day, and he died, that boy, in some foreign desert. I mourn his passing when I think of him. Someone else came back, you see – a man none of us knew, a man utterly changed, a young prince returned from the great war of our time to reclaim his throne. (116)
Voltan has a story of his own and when I read “That tale is for another day…” (105), it occurred to me that it might not be the last we hear of this quirky character. I am confident there would be a worthy story in the life of this son of a miner who was followed to Australia across the ocean by “something of the dread atmosphere in the mining village” (105).
Part Three is narrated by Mikey (AKA Mekong Delta) and it is here where my interest in the story waned. I enjoyed Mikey when I saw him through Ben’s eyes “(there was a tiny bit of handsome hidden underneath that fake-gangster exterior)” (20) but couldn’t warm to him on his own. The argot of this wannabe US gangster-rap hip-hop Aussie lout, while perfectly realised, becomes too much of a strain to read, once his character becomes the focus. In addition, I couldn’t find the sympathy I’d mustered for Ben and I just yearned for the soldier to come back and take the starring role again.
When Ben did eventually return in ‘O Dark Hundred’, it didn’t satisfy me. He seemed to have lost his original voice and slightly morphed into something half Ben/half Mikey with a bit of silliness thrown into the mix.
In a desperate bid to get some perspective on my ambivalence toward the latter part of the book, I searched for any similar questions raised by other reviewers. Of the few reviews I found, no-one’s climbing in my boat. Tony Birch reviewed The Glass Kingdom for the Australian Book Review and Alan Vaarwerk (who found Mikey to be a “real stand-out”) reviewed for Readings. James Tierney (Sydney Morning Herald) goes so far as to dub part three, in Mikey’s voice, as “quite simply a tour-de-force”. So, clearly, I am alone on choppy seas when it comes to my dislike of the manic Mikey and my resentment that he played such a big part.
I am pleased to say that my non-relationship with Mikey was not enough to negate the fascinating, rampaging romp that is the first part of the novel and, coming on the back of A Tiger in Eden, I feel The Glass Kingdom has cemented Flynn as a writer of considerable muscle. Can’t wait for the next one.
My thanks, once again, to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted.
Flynn, Chris. The Glass Kingdom, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2014.
ISBN: 9 781922 147882