Murray Bail distills Australia's quirky essence

It's one thing for a writer to take a decade or so between books, as Australian writer Murray Bail does. It's quite another for it to take decades for those books to reach their audience.

American readers have had to wait an unconscionably long time for most of Bail's antic, melancholy fiction. Happily the wait is over.

Since the 1998 publication of his third novel, "Eucalyptus" (a gloriously deranged fairy tale of the Outback), his work has steadily made its way stateside. His first novel, "Homesickness," a 1980 Australian National Book Award-winner about 13 Aussie tourists on an endless package tour around the globe, reached these shores in 1999. Now comes his second novel, "Holden's Performance" (1987), along with his debut collection of stories, "Camouflage" (first published in 1975 as "Contemporary Portraits" in Australia, and repackaged here in an expanded edition).

"Holden's Performance" is a surreal Everyman's tale that serves as a sly social history of Australia from the 1940s through the 1960s. Its eponymous hero, Holden Shadbolt, is a lad of "tremendous torpedo-bulk" and a much-remarked "expressionlessness," whose key attributes seem to be his physical strength, his photographic memory and his utter lack of malice.

Bail follows him from his hometown — "small and rectilinear" Adelaide, where Bail himself grew up — to Sydney, where Holden is shocked to find that the streets "run all over the place." There he finds work as a theater bouncer, before moving on to Canberra, Australia's capital, where he's employed first as a government chauffeur and then as a bodyguard to the prime minister himself.

Holden's "unconscious trajectory" from humble nobody to guileless protector of the powerful recalls the unlikely rise of Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There." But Bail's agenda differs from Kosinski's, in that he sees Holden not as an accidental oracle in a meaning-starved political scene, but as the veritable soul incarnate of Australia itself, "a young country ... existing in the consciousness as largely a blank."

How do you build a whole novel around an expressionless "blank"? By surrounding him with some world-class eccentrics.

"Holden's Performance" boasts an array of them, starting with Holden's Uncle Vern, a proofreader who encourages his nephew to mix newspaper pages in with his breakfast cereal (for their roughage content) and complains that Australia's contribution to the English language has been "nothing but slang and abbreviations."

Other oddballs include Holden's asymmetrical girlfriend, Harriet, a polio survivor given to heckling visiting royalty and aspiring beauty queens; entrepreneur Alex Screech, whose all-newsreel theater gives Holden his first glimpse of a troubled world outside the sunny reaches of Australia; and womanizer Sid Hoadley, Minister of Commerce, Home Affairs and the Interior, ever "ready to satisfy the needs of fifty percent of the electorate" (i.e., the female half).

After Sid Hoadley, any character would have trouble making a mark, and the novel does lose some of its tour-de-force energy in its last lap as Holden serves under a faceless prime minister. Still, the book ends with a delicious twist when Holden, still a cipher, moves on to his ultimate destiny. The result is a tongue-in-cheek, New Kid on the Block Conquers the World parable, with both Holden and Australia itself in the role of wunderkind.

"Camouflage" reveals that Bail's genius was full-blown from the start. The story "Portrait of Electricity" anticipates the absurdities of "Homesickness" with its tour of a museum consecrated to the memory of ... whom? (We never find out.) "Zoellner's Definition" feels like a trial run for "Holden's Performance," as it zeroes in on the essence of its title character by concentrating on all his most ordinary attributes: skin, nose, mouth, cigarette habit. Indeed, Bail's greatest gift may be his ability — thanks to acrobatic syntax and deadpan observation — to light up the ordinary in such a way that it becomes extraordinary.

A few of the early tales are experimental to the point of obscurity. But the newest entries show Bail in fine form, especially "The Seduction of My Sister," where a bizarre premise — a narrator continually throwing all his family's worldly goods over the roof of his house for a neighbor boy to catch — gradually acquires a psychological weight, as the sister of the title shifts her allegiance from her brother to the boy next door.

"Eucalyptus" and "Homesickness" are still the best entry points into the sublimely addled world of Bail. But these two new imports are also a treat, showcasing Bail's flawless ear for the Australian vernacular and his knack for tapping into the lonely, quirky essence of the island continent.

"Holden's Performance"

By Murray Bail
Picador USA, $14

by Murray Bail
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20