JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE to go back into the bookshop, along comes The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther. A Picador publication by first-timer Andrew Masterson - seditious, seductive, repulsive, humorous, offensive to Christians and curiously entertaining. The "cult classic" barometer is high; so is the possibility of pulpit-driven denunciation.
An apochryphon is a secret religious book, and Last Days is the diaristic revelations of its hero. The plot is convoluted, part gumshoe derring-do, part religious treatise, part social realism. Racily irreverent, it is slowed occasionally by philosophical longueurs but never fatally so. It's definitely not Dirty Realism - more Filthy Fantasy in a crime noir wrapping.
In Joe Panther, Masterson has created a one-off hero, a slimeball PI unmatched for oleaginous self-absorption and mean-minded manipulation. He's victim and victimiser, a man whose grubby machinations are leavened by a deft line in black-humoured asides, comically righteous rationalisations and inadvertant recognitions of reality.
A small-time heroin dealer with serious substance abuse problems, he haunts low places with high-minded sangfroid and is not above the odd bit of biffo with maximum prejudice. "I am obnoxious, obscene, violent, lustful," he admits in passing. "I'm also untrustworthy, deceitful, opportunistic, sly, brutal, usurious, unstable, uncharitable and vengeance, always, is mine."
He's also the Messiah. Or maybe he's a millennial anti-Christ? Whatever, he flails away with divine certainty, a lonely loner whose fantasies of control become mired in a quicksand of avarice. As an outlaw, he's outgunned by the corrupt cabal of Melbourne's establishment.
Masterson's literary lariat ropes in religion, the media, the police, ASIO, high society and business with lashings of prostitution, pedophilia, homelessness and drugs. It's a Circean knot of comic repulsion. What sympathies he has lie with society's dregs, but his tale is more than a droll trawl through a surrealistic sewer - it's 500 pages of reptilian fascination that appal as much as they appeal: if you're not mortally offended, you'll be bizarrely rewarded.
It's important to remember, Masterson warns, that a book is passive: its text can only be absorbed by an act of will. "If you're offended by religious iconoclasm and bad jokes, buy some other novel."
A "Celt by habit as much as genetics", he was born in Cornwall 37 years ago today (April 25). His childhood was defined, he says, by his father deserting the home when he was six months old - "he went to war and never came back". From the time he was six, his mother and he yo-yoed between Britain and Australia, "ten-pound Poms who couldn't settle anywhere - always running away."
This nomadic urge has impelled the adult Masterson to travel erratically and extensively. Based now in Melbourne, he considers himself an Australian, "even though I reserve the right to die in Cornwall". For the past 15 years, he has been a peripatetic journalist, with popular culture his prime beat - journalism was a natural progression on a CV that includes stints as an actor, "second-rate musician and 5 years of being a human statue" outside nightclubs in Melbourne and Perth which gave him "free beer and deeply personal insights into human nature".
While his journalistic pop shots include interviews with Iggy Pop, Gene Simmons and the Minogues Mark I and II, and his publishing credentials range from Bosstrology (A guide to the Twelve Bastard Bosses of the Zodiac) to a textbook, Rocking in the Real World, he'd never written fiction. Let alone a crime novel cum religious monograph.
"My fascination was with history, and reading about a broad range of belief systems. I began to investigate how belief systems develop, and how the texts that underpin them are reinterpreted. And I wondered what would happen if the son of God were alive in Melbourne today, and had fallen on hard times ..." Get me pen, get me paper. After four chapters, he sent a synopsis to Picador "in which the central blasphemy was fairly baldly stated" and was encouraged "by their courage" to continue.
Simultaneously, he was motivated to track down his own father. The only clue: an army serial number. After months of "braving the bureaucratic labyrinth", he persuaded the army to write to his father's last-known address. The letter arrived the week his grandmother was moving out of the family home. "A few more days and it would have been too late ..."
Life does not always mirror fiction - happy-ever-afters are not inevitable. "We have an uneasy correspondence," Masterson says, "but I'm not sure I want to meet him. Our father-son relationship is too fraught."
Which indicates, conversely, that fiction sometimes mirrors life.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1998
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