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Friday, 12 December 2008

Review: Elliot Perlman, Three Dollars, 1998

There is enough visual action to justify a dramatisation but the book is strikingly literary. It’s opening chapters also contain a strong autobiographical element that would furnish material for a different type of treatment.

In his many dogs, Perlman unearths a metaphor for community. It is an unsurprising one, true, but he pulls it off with flair.

From the dogs seen from the bathroom window (the bathroom with recalcitrant tiles) to Helen, Nick the divorced Greek’s dog - canines provide a link between people, between people and place, and between the temporal moments of Perlman’s narrative.

There are other moments, too. The nine and a half year hiatus between encounters with Amanda constitute a leitmotif. Once again, Perlman is not embarrassed to be explicit. Amanda is a thread woven into Eddie’s existential fabric. So is Gerard - the dark prince on the far side of the lists.

Kate and Tanya, Abby and Eddie’s mother, and the woman with the dog who is a friend of Helen - all these elements are deployed with the aim of creating a suitable matrix within which Eddie’s story - and Eddie’s thoughts - can make sense to us.

And they do. But there’s also Perlman’s prose: scintillating, sharp, sinuous, sensitive, assured. He writes like an angel in Dante’s empyrean would write if said angel were a mature man writing a novel in Australia in the nineties.

There’s something old here, something borrowed from the great writers of fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. There’s even a touch of Henry Fielding (though never as lusty) and Tobias Smollett (though never as cruel) and Laurence Sterne (though not quite as whimsical).

Above all there’s the shame. It’s the kind of shame that is engrained so deeply into a country’s psyche that nothing would ever serve to remove it.

It’s not an American shame. It’s the shame of a settler society where indigence is more horrible than any other sin: the shame of helplessness.

Perlman kindly places the clue to Eddie’s mortal weakness in the first page, though not in the first words: “It was not that I was not interested in things but rather that I was interested in too many things.”

The kind of child who would grow up to admire the elegance of scientific certainty at the same time as he admired the brilliance of a clever young woman. The same man who would feel it his duty to comfort a fellow human found distressed in the street. The man who would be bound to protect his child from a mother about to succumb to depression.

He is a whole man, and his life is hard. Perlman’s achievement is to have been able to depict this complete human being in such a confident way.

This is a book for the ages.

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