cover image The Tax Inspector

The Tax Inspector

Peter Carey. Knopf Publishing Group, $21 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40434-7

The brilliant Australian novelist, whose award-winning Oscar and Lucinda was a macabre, rather Dickensian study of 19th-century religiosity, is working here in the very different territory of contemporary Sydney. Catchprice Motors is a scruffy auto dealership in a moldering suburb, run by a family of bizarre misfits with a history of child molestation. Granny Frieda goes around with explosives in her handbag, lumpy daughter Cathy longs to be a country singer, dour son Mort tries to fight the sexual lures of his own offspring, hyped-up Benny, who has bought a set of expensive audiotapes that promise to change his life; meanwhile Benny's brother Vish has fled to be a Hare Krishna. The family, perpetually at each other's throats, is brought to an even higher level of crisis by the arrival of a pretty--and pregnant--tax inspector, Maria Takis, to look into their dubious books. It is Carey's great gift to make out of this lurid material a book that is gripping, shocking and sometimes even moving--though the Grand Guignol climax does go over the edge. Yet the visceral understanding with which Carey probes these odd psyches, his remarkable eye for decay and corruption, and the humanity with which he presents Maria and her attempt at love linger in the mind despite the melodramatic windup. (Jan.)