Fredy Neptune

Les A. Murray, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $27.5 (255p) ISBN 978-0-374-15854-5
Australia's best-known poet has surpassed himself: this entertaining, sprawling, serious novel-in-verse is the best thing Murray (Subhuman Redneck Poems) has written. His expansive, colloquial free verse and eight-line stanzas--sometimes chewily irregular, sometimes conversationally fluent--hide their verbal subtleties in order to hook readers on character and plot. After Freddy Boettcher, an Australian sailor of German descent, sees women burnt alive in Turkey in WWI, he develops psychosomatic leprosy. When he recovers he has gained superstrength but lost his sense of touch. Over the next 30 years he visits (mostly unwillingly) Constantinople, Egypt, Jerusalem, Queensland, Paris, Kentucky, Hollywood, Switzerland, Nazi Germany, Sydney, Shanghai and New Guinea; meets (among others) Lawrence of Arabia, Chaim Weizmann, Marlene Dietrich, the mad-scientist aesthete Basil Thoroblood and the hermaphrodite ex-artilleryman ""Leila, now Leland"" Golightly; wrestles a ""poor opium-mad bear""; inspires the creators of Superman; and becomes a reporter, a circus strongman, a fisherman, a father, a swamp-dredger, a hobo, a movie actor and a Zeppelin crewman, mostly while trying to get home to his wife. Fred's first-person story, ""big, dangerous, baggy,"" makes him a (literally) numb modern Everyman and a spokesman for tough-minded, populist pacifism: ""There were no sides for me: both were mine. I'd seen them both."" He also defends masculinity, saving a retarded German from castration by bringing him to Australia. If Murray's first verse-novel, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, struck many readers as sexist, this one will not. Fredy Neptune overflows with story; the roller-coaster stanzas stay clear and memorable: ""I leaped up, healthy again, and gravity hung my boots downwards."" Murray's deliberately talky, ungainly style can disfigure his shorter poems; it's perfect, though, for this eventful, globe-trotting--and, it turns out, deeply Catholic--modern epic, linked almost equally to Homer's Odyssey, Milton's Paradise Regained and Lucas and Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/1999
Release date: 02/01/1999
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