Three Exuberant Reads recommended by Victor Enns


“Exuberance is beauty,” said William Blake, as Victor Enns reminds us…

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, 1944

While James Joyce gave us Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce Cary in The Horse’s Mouth gives us Gulley Jimson¸a portrait of an artist as an old man, a rogue, and a force of art and nature. Gulley is driven to make pictures with vision and inspiration, a latter day William Blake, scrabbling for a bit of paint, a wall or any surface that can take paint, while confronting penury with a sense of humour, an eye out for the main chance and a razor sharp wit. The novel is the final installment of a modernist trilogy that begins with Herself Surprised, featuring the lusty, irascible Sara Monday, who ties the trilogy together. Sara was Gulley’s partner, wife and sometime model in their early years, taking up with the dour Tom Wilcher who narrates To be a Pilgrim, in the second.

The Horse’s Mouth is the most read and remembered of Cary’s work, still available in paperback, and can be enjoyed because of the brilliant characterization of Gulley on its own, but readers willing to enter this world will get a much fuller sense of his character seen by those in the other novels in the trilogy.

The Brits have a tradition of the multi-novel series, exemplified by Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, taken to the extreme in Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time; and most recently exploited in The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn. All are recommended, but the Joyce Cary First Trilogy as it’s sometimes known (there is a second) is by far the most fun, and of these The Horse’s Mouth, for all its seriousness about the role of the artist in society, is often laugh out loud funny, even as Gulley faces his life’s end. A nun who is nursing him remarks that he should be praying instead of laughing; “Same thing, Mother,” replies Jimson, his last words.


Illywhacker by Peter Carey, 1985

Margaret Atwood, in a recent New York Times article, responded to the question of how you might introduce someone from Mars to the United States by arguing, in a comic dialogue with the Martians, that a country’s literature would be the most revealing  Before he won the Booker prize, Peter Carey was shortlisted for this sprawling tall tale recounted by the 139-year-old Herbert Badgery, which serves as an excellent introduction to Australia, and Australians. Better I think, than Carey’s True History of the Kelley Gang, mythologizing an Australian legend, for which he was awarded his second Booker (the first being for Oscar and Lucinda).

Forget the claims for Illywhacker as magical realism, postmodern, or meta-fiction. Readers can enjoy the sheer exuberance of a rollicking story that carries you along like passenger in a hell-bent-for-leather ride in a Ute with your mate trying to get to a local pub before it closes. Badgery, like Jimson, is an exuberant trickster full of life, lies and bullshit, another memorable member of a literary rogues gallery.


A Walker in the City, by Méira Cook, Brick, 2011

I like reading poems with people in them, whether Beatrice, Crazy Jane, Good Ol’ Alfred J., or the Sad Phoenician. Cook plays with traditions of these poems and poets, while keeping good narrative company with the creators of Jimson and Badgery. Here the flâneur is the trickster, a young woman called Mia introduced in the title and first section of the seven that make up the book.

Mia’s creator, “the old poet” Kulperstein, is another walker, irregular, unsteady, crossing paths and words with the pert young woman. There is a lot of play (in many senses of the word) in the language and the story, set in Winnipeg, which Cook now calls home.

There is also something in this collection for mystery lovers and puzzle solvers described in the book’s promotion as a whoizzit, rather than a whodunnit.  Who is writing whom? As Barthes would have it, that would be us, as readers. Canada has a long long poem tradition, and it’s exciting to see it re-envisioned and remade in this fresh, eminently enjoyable and often very funny read.


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Victor Enns

Victor Enns writes poetry, reads, and reviews fiction. Boy (Hagios 2012) was published in May, and Lucky Man, (Hagios 2005) was short-listed for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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