Halfway through Minotaur, Peter Goldsworthy’s jauntily satisfying novel about a sharp-tongued former motorcycle cop blinded by a bullet to the head, Detective Sergeant Rick Zadow gropes his way to a shed behind his Adelaide cottage. Inside lies a partially dismantled 1962 Green Frame Ducati 750SS. Zadow, who had begun disassembling the crankshaft prior to his injury, fumbles round in the dark as he tries to restore the beloved bike he will never be able to ride again. He uses his ever-present companion and virtual girlfriend, Siri, to order parts from a website called Road and Race.
I checked if this site was real, not out of pedantry but because two days prior I had bought a vintage Ducati motorcycle and needed to find era-appropriate front fork seals. Fortunately for me, Goldsworthy’s research proved exemplary.
Regardless of the author’s unwitting assistance in helping my conveyance pass a roadworthy test, Minotaur convincingly illuminates the darkest recesses of the human sensory experience while also exposing the influence of ‘bikie gangs’ in South Australia – or, as we due-paying, law-abiding members prefer to call them, motorcycle clubs.
This is a novel that deals with the aftermath of a criminal act and the wide-reaching consequences on those involved. We are told early on that Zadow lost his vision when he heroically broke protocol during a hostage situation, but details surrounding the incident remain vague. Two years on, he has learned how to cope with blindness. His home is networked so that he can operate anything via a simple voice command to Siri (with whom he has an ongoing, surprisingly two-sided conversation). Led by his nose, ears, and Siri’s precise step counts, Zadow walks the streets with confidence. Anyone dismissive of Apple’s virtual assistant will be chastened by the realisation of her life-changing usefulness to the visually challenged.
Zadow’s ability to duck branches and catch packets of cigarettes thrown at him by his former boss raise interesting questions. Are his other senses more highly attuned now? What is the exact nature of his brain injury? Will he don a red Daredevil suit and become Adelaide’s very own Matt Murdock?
Two psychiatrists are tasked with assessing the extent of Zadow’s physical and emotional damage, in order to help him through the trauma but also to calculate how much compensation he is entitled to from WorkCover. Meanwhile, his wife, Willow, is torn between standing by him, despite his gruff, sardonic attitude and short temper, and leaving him to his own devices. The police want him back on the job, taking advantage of his condition and experience to act as an undercover operative.
Matters are complicated further when the man responsible for Zadow’s predicament escapes from prison. Zadow’s former colleagues believe the fugitive will flee Adelaide, but he reckons otherwise and lays a trap in his spare room, hoping for retribution. Will the offender return to the scene of the crime and finish the job, or will he flee across the Nullarbor and leave Zadow unfulfilled?
Minotaur is about waiting. Zadow has little to do except wander the streets of Adelaide – richly conveyed in a smorgasbord of tastes and smells – provoking confrontations as his frustration rises. It is during this fruitless odyssey that the story’s layers are slowly revealed. Who was the man that shot a police officer in the head, and why did he commit such an atrocious act? Who was Zadow protecting? What exactly did his role involve when infiltrating the Golgothans, and did he, like many undercover operatives, go too deep and become the very thing he was sent to destroy?
In a more procedural novel, these questions might have been handled in a pat and predictable fashion, but Goldsworthy dives deep into the human psyche during Zadow’s sessions with his main psychiatrist. Shrinks tend to be objects of gentle ridicule in the genre, used in a clumsy way to offload backstory and exposition. Despite initial scepticism, in this case both Zadow and the reader have their presumptions subverted by the psychiatrist’s professionalism and genuine concern. The Professor, as Zadow calls her, leads the wounded policeman to a series of revelations that defuse his cynicism and generate enormous empathy for a character that may seem gruff and patriarchal at first. Goldsworthy’s genius here is to assault Australian male bravado head-on and to expose the weakness of its carapace. Once Zadow’s vulnerability becomes apparent, we feel sorry for the poor bastard. From then on we are deeply invested in his rehabilitation, whatever form that may take.
Like any Goldsworthy book, the inherent seriousness of the themes is nicely balanced with an undercurrent of humour. Zadow and his police colleagues, unafraid of tearing strips off one another, are masters of banter. The Australianness of their idiom frequently provokes mirth. ‘Fair suck of the mango stone, mate!’ Zadow’s former chief says at one point, which made me laugh because it reminded me not only of Kevin Rudd’s apocryphal ‘Fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate’ but of the daggy phrases uttered by the president of my own motorcycle club. Like Zadow, he too has a delightful, if unexpected, soft centre.