David Foster has a way with subject matter in his novels. In his dealings with the arcane (The Adventures of Christian Rosy Cross and Rosicrucianism) and the quotidian (the postal protocol of Dog Rock) alike, he has consistently shown the knack of discovering new areas to entertain and inform us. He is mightily intolerant of the glib social overview by scientist or politician and, in his capacity as Juvenalian satirist, he possesses all the qualifications, including a keen eye for human folly, the ability to manipulate and hijack his audience, and a readiness to be mordant and merciless while at the same retaining an unrelenting hold over those who read his books.
David Foster’s earlier Dog Rock novels came out of his experience as a Bundanoon postman in the 1980s. A recent brief return to his old run has provided irresistible material for a further comic foray into rural life. Dog Rock: A Postal Pastoral (1985) and The Pale Blue Crochet Coathanger Cover (1988)observed the changes in a country village under the rather flimsy cover of murder mysteries, but Foster sacrificed his postman, D’Arcy D’Oliveres, to the task of narrating The Glade Within the Grove (1996). Now, a few years after the immense achievement of Sons of the Rumour (2009), D’Arcy rides his Honda 90 again. Of course, readers need to overlook the fact that D’Arcy died of lung cancer before he could finish The Glade Within the Grove. But D’Arcy’s death is not fact, it’s fiction – so he can rise from the dead, without any need for miraculous cures or mistaken identities, to narrate Man of Letters. In this novel, he tells the locals of Dog Rock that he was dead and buried ‘only in a manner of speaking’.
This amazing novel comes in two parts, a 431-page prose Saga, and a 123 page verse Ballad. The whole is held together by a Narrator, who tells the Saga as a gloss on the Ballad, which he found in an old bike shed in an abandoned mailbag. The ballad was written by Orion the Poet, a young man called Timothy Papadirnitriou ...
I have often found myself feeling a little frustrated after reading a David Foster novel. While never doubting his ability as a writer, the convolutions of his narrative have, more than once, overshadowed his undeniably fine prose. His latest book, Hitting the Wall, a collection of two novellas, allows us the opportunity to examine how Foster handles the more urgent needs of this much shorter form.
David Foster is obsessed with opposites. He likes to play polarities of place and value against each other: in The Pure Land he contrasted Katoomba and Philadelphia, the sentimental and the intellectual; in Plumbum he put Canberra against Calcutta, the rational against the spiritual. At a talk in Canberra several years ago, he commented that it was the symmetry of the words Canberra and Calcutta that attracted him to the idea of the cities as polarities. Words themselves invite Foster to play games with meaning and suggestion, and he finds an endless source of absurdity in the gap between actuality and the words chosen to label it.
After the zany energy and comic extravagance of Moonlite, the first part of David Foster’s new novel, Plumbum, is curiously sober and the comic vision subdued. In Canberra, which his characters generally regard as preposterous, The Last Great Heavy Metal Rock Band of the Western World is born, but its birth is protracted and the narrative pace is leisurely, sometimes dangerously slow. The reader is lulled, apart from the faint, nervous suspicion that the narrative might suddenly accelerate and take off. And it does, at lunatic speed in the second half of the novel, where Foster is at his fabulous best, absurdist and zany comic.
I’ve always had a terror of one day having to explain a joke. And now it’s happened. Moonlite is one of the jokiest books since Such Is Life which in its turn reminds us of the even jokier Tristram Shandy and behind that no less than Rabelais himself. The best way to talk about Moonlite, then, is perhaps to say that it is bouncing, bewildering, wilful and – very occasionally – boring, just as these books are.