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Peter Carey's rip-roaring yarn of poetic fakery, a ribald near-masterpiece from Patrick McCabe, Tiny Tim all grown up and investigating murders, and the rest of the season's best fiction.

Published December 18, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

"My Life as a Fake" by Peter Carey

Peter Carey's delightful new novel is crawling with poets. There is John Slater, a walking cliché of skirt-chasing literary virility, looking "rather wild and windburned, as if he'd recently returned from tramping over the moors or following Basho's path all the way to Ogaki," and there's Christopher Chubb, the crabbed Australian traditionalist Slater describes as "a very serious provincial academic poet, committed to a life of envy and disappointment." And then there is Bob McCorkle, a mechanic turned rough-hewn bard, possibly imaginary, but in any case a monster. Lastly, there is our narrator, Sarah Wode-Douglass, a youngish woman of aristocratic blood but no fortune. She is not a poet, but an even more exotic creature: the editor of an esteemed poetry journal, one who, whenever someone gets between her and the kind of great work she longs to publish, finds cause to remember that her English ancestors were once "fearsome warriors."

Despite this versifying rabble, "My Life as a Fake" is actually a paean to fiction, a sneaky parable on the superior power of lies over truth. Poets -- who tend to make more interesting characters than novelists, anyway -- are in the business of self-expression; fiction writers fabricate. "You really cannot counterfeit a voice," Sarah opines after getting her avid paws on a sample of the late McCorkle's work, but in that she is wrong, for her own voice is counterfeited, and splendidly so, by Carey, an Australian novelist, who has his wicked way with her. But "My Life as a Fake" is not one of those books in which the novelist revels preeningly in the artificiality of what novelists do and in the process bores his readers to tears. If fakery is so potent, Carey suggests, we play around with it at our peril.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Sarah allows herself to be dragged to Kuala Lumpur by Slater, lured by the older poet's vague promise of information about her mother's suicide many years ago. There she meets the decrepit Chubb, who is reduced to running a shabby bicycle repair shop with his scarred, hostile Chinese wife. Chubb dangles a page of poetry under Sarah's nose, and she catches an intoxicating whiff of genius. She wants more! But Chubb, Slater explains, is dangerous and probably mad, the perpetrator, 30-some years earlier, of a fatal hoax.

Back in the '40s, aiming to embarrass the handsome young editor of an Australian literary journal, Chubb invented McCorkle, and cooked up a handful of stormy verses -- modernist claptrap, in Chubb's opinion -- supposedly authored by this "grease monkey." The editor bites and comes to believe ardently in McCorkle's existence and his gift. He sticks by that belief, even after he is humiliated by Chubb's revelation of the prank and destroyed when a provincial official takes him to court on obscenity charges for publishing the stuff. Then a glowering hulk accosts the guilt-stricken Chubb in a graveyard, claiming to be Bob McCorkle. Chubb pegs him for a madman -- mad in more ways than one. "McCorkle" blames his "maker" for his incomplete identity and unsatisfactory life.

Like Dr. Frankenstein's monster (Carey leads the book with a quote from Mary Shelley's masterpiece), McCorkle seeks vengeance on his creator. Thereby hangs a long and ripping tale involving an exotic beauty, a stolen child, a jungle hideout, a ruthless Malaysian drug lord, a Tamil schoolteacher with a sideline in poisoning and a library of books bound in a disturbingly skin-like material. Sarah hears this marvelous adventure story from Chubb, but Slater insists that the whole saga is merely the imaginings of a nut case. When the long-coveted volume of McCorkle's poetry finally rests in her hands, what is Sarah to make of it? After all, Chubb's own verse is decidedly third-rate.

Novelists will often talk, preciously, of their characters "taking over" the writing, commandeering the story and leading the book in directions the writer never intended. "My Life as a Fake" is that notion taken to nightmarish extremes. The bogus is transformed into the real -- or a convincing facsimile thereof -- by the power of belief. It's a miracle of sorts, but a dangerous one. Chubb listens in horror when the parody of modernist verse he fashioned as a joke changes as McCorkle recites it: "this lunatic had somehow recast it without changing a word. What had been clever had now become true, the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the antipodes."

Carey sees a similar process at work in the realization of Australia, that would-be imitation of England that has now come into an existence of its own. At some point the creator's original intention evaporates and a new set of imperatives takes over, and it can happen to gifted writers like Carey even when they're at their most playfully insincere. Then, let the writer beware. And the reader rejoice.

-- Laura Miller

Our next pick: From the Irish novelist Patrick McCabe, a tragicomic tale of IRA violence, a girl who looks like Joni Mitchell and "The Chickens of Forgiveness!!!"

By Salon Staff

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