Harper Collins: 1997
$13.00, 256 pp.
Review by Ann Skea
Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
"There are three things that get me worked up about a place:
This is not quite the way most people would describe East Village, Manhattan, but then it often takes an outsider to appreciate the weirdness that the locals regard as normal. Tony Perrottet may have a green card (and getting it certainly required him to venture into frontier territory) but he is definitely not a New Yorker. In fact, when East Village weirdness suddenly starts to seem normal he knows he must get away.
Against the dangers and excitements of frontier Manhattan, Perrottet sets the terror and adventure of dropping into the Juan Fernandez islands in an ancient, open-doored Cessna; sampling the native delicacy, 'hakarl', in Iceland ("whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger"); surviving the Friday night rituals on Thursday Island; and hiking the treacherous Na Pali cliffs of Kauai to meet the naked hippies of Kalalau ("I doubt I've been so glad to see a penis in all my life". Even braving the frontiers of Mississippi clearly requires intrepid boldness, especially if you are unexpectedly invited to the Eutaw Supper Club.
All the places Perrottet visits (and there are many more) do seem to have some obscure literary association, but quite what that is for Far North Queensland (apart from Perrottet's own status as an Aussie author) is not altogether clear. Maybe the local stories of sighting a Tasmanian Tiger (a marsupial wolf which may, or may not, be extinct) qualify as literature and that's why he calls them 'Thylacine Dreaming'. But literature is not highly regarded in places where the only pubs are called the 'Top', 'Middle' and 'Bottom', "to avoid confusion".
Perrottet's other literary links range from Dostoyevsky to Darwin; from the Icelandic Sagas to Gone With The Wind; from Byron to Noel Coward. He meets Hemingway's old Cuban boatman, Gregorio Fuente. And he exhausts himself on Alexander Selkirk's dawn jogging track up the El Yunque mountain. Selkirk, the 'real' Robinson Crusoe, was not quite the zealous, God-fearing paragon that Daniel Defoe made him out to be. His Pacific island adventure certainly had all the right ingredients for a best-seller and, given a few moral and imperial touches, that is what Defoe made of it. But history, as Perrottet re-tells, shows the man himself to be a far from endearing character.
Perrottet writes fluently and interestingly about his journeys to remote places, as well as about his life in Manhattan. Sadly, it seems that even remote regions with weird literary associations now attract literary tourists and suffer the sort of exploitative promotion which limits the way a place can be experienced. But Perrottet's explorations and observations are fresh and original. Knowing no Russian, he moves out of an expensive package-tour hotel in Leningrad and struggles to live as the ordinary residents do, in a Gulag-style apartment block. Even in Belize, "one of Central America's eco-tourism hot spots", he finds a place no-one else wants to visit - possibly because it is run by a maniacal "eco-zealot".
I do wonder what American and English readers will visualise when Perrottet occasionally reaches for familiar Australian locations (like the Sydney suburb of Lakemba) in order to make comparisons. And I question the value of the fuzzy, sometimes indecipherable black-and-white photographs which separate the chapters. These were, apparently, taken with the $15 camera which possibly saved his life in Harlem (another frontier adventure), and they have appeared in several New York exhibitions, but their paperback reproduction is extremely poor. Overall, however, this book is entertaining, humorous and original.
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