Elliot Perlman is one of my favourite authors and I had the great pleasure of hearing him talk at this year’s Clunes Booktown. In that particular talk his topic was the research and writing of the highly acclaimed The Street Sweeper. An amazing, complex web of a novel that should immediately be moved to your must read list (near the top, please!) if you have not yet read it. However, this week’s Wednesday Reads is not The Street Sweeper, but an earlier work, Three Dollars. It has Perlman’s easy reading style which so deftly spins a story both despairing and all to realistic.
This one is set in inner-city Melbourne, around Brunswick in particular, and the familiarity with the setting compounded the feeling that this could be me in many ways. The story’s protagonist, Eddie, has somewhat inexplicably become a chemical engineer sacked from a government department in the sudden economic downturn of the 1990s. He has a wife with serious bouts of incapacitating depression, a small child, a mortgage and just three dollars to his name. With no income, no references – a side-effect of his attempt to keep his integrity in the dirty world of the mining industry – and no plan beyond getting some garlic bread, Eddie’s future is looking bleak, a word that described this time and place quite well.
Perlman writes with great intelligence – sometimes too much in this case – humour and drama, but I will admit to finding this particular work a little too on the depressing side. There were wonderful moments, like Eddie’s encounter with a homeless man and a dog, like the dialogue between him and the Chinese tailor over a ripped suit jacket, but then there is a lot of bad luck and hard times. It was stressful reading it. Being a family on one income, in an age designed primarily for two, I know the stress of paying all those bills on time, but my experience is nothing on this one in the end. So while this may be a great post-modern portrayal of the time (winner of the 1998 Age Book of the Year no less), enter it with your eyes wide open, there will be little joy. I gave it three stars, for pure writing talent and then quickly moved on to something I hoped would be more lighthearted….. I was wrong.