Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2011

The Big Fellow, by Vance Palmer

Vance Palmer is a name well-known to people of my generation who found his Legends of the Nineties or National Portraits on their reading lists at school, but I had never read any of his fiction until, working my way through the Miles Franklin Award winners on my TBR, it was time to read The Big Fellow which won the award in 1959.

I think it might have come as a bit of a disappointment to readers lured to the title by the award.  It is just not in the same class as its predecessors.  Voss by Patrick White (yet-to-be-awarded his Nobel Prize) is a brilliant book still widely read; and To The Islands by Randolph Stow was an astonishing work written in luminous prose when the author was only 22.  (My reviews of these two novels are here).  But The Big Fellow hasn’t stood the test of time, if indeed it ever deserved the accolade.  (Astonishingly, there are no records of shortlisted books prior to 1987.  Did successive judges and the Miles Franklin trustees not have any eye to Australia’s literary history????)

Perhaps the judges felt that they ‘owed’ an award to Palmer because of his contribution to Australian letters?  He and his wife Nettie were the foremost literary couple of their era and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award recognises this by naming the fiction award as the Vance Palmer Prize and the non-fiction award as the Nettie Palmer Prize.  As I have noted before, my copy of The Big Fellow is inscribed by Nettie Palmer, ‘To dear Dorothea from Nettie’, which adds a certain frisson to the reading…

But not enough to save the novel from itself.  The truth is, (whatever they may say about it at the Australian Dictionary of Biography) it’s a rather pedestrian book, with a desultory plot and in places, rather plodding prose.

Third in what is known as the Golconda Trilogy (now not surprisingly out of print) it’s the story of Macy Donovan, a unionist who has reached the pinnacle of his career to become Premier of Queensland.  Apparently it’s based on the life of Ted Theodore, who became Premier of the first Labor Government in Queensland after forging Australia’s largest union, the Australian Workers Union.  Well, we all know that politics was a much less demanding operation in the 1950s, and yes, it’s true that Brisbane was – as the novel says – just a provincial town back in the 1950s, but even so, apart from soothing some troubled industrial waters and organising a bit of drought relief, Macy Donovan seems to spend less time running the entire state than would a chap running a Monday-to-Friday service station.   His preoccupations are some allegations of corruption long-ago; an old flame, and his daughter’s love life, not necessarily in that order.  Even when there’s a Royal Commission to investigate his dealings, he’s off down at the beach trying to resurrect old passion!

Given that the writing is nothing to get excited about and there are no interesting structural features, the reason to keep reading is to discover if there is any truth to the corruption allegations, if Macy will succumb to infidelity, and if his daughter will come a cropper with the Yankee boyfriend who’s gone back to the US after the war.   The novel explores Macy’s motivations and emotions, but his psychological state lacks momentum and he’s like a flat beer.  His nemesis Chester Byrne is a more intriguing character, but he doesn’t feature often enough.

The female characters are mildly interesting but they suffer from the gender stereotypes of the period.  The Premier’s wife, Kitty, seems to have no conception of his political responsibilities, planning birthday parties for him without so much as considering his diary, and inflicting the company of her ghastly family on him even though some of them have dubious connections that would give today’s media a field day.  She has no ambitions of her own but although she ‘lives for her family’ she doesn’t like her own daughter much.  Sylvia of the lovestruck heart is a ridiculous unconvincing character, traipsing off across the world after what’s-his-name when quite clearly he’s abandoned her.

Part of the problem with this novel is that there’s far too many characters roaming around commenting on each other’s lives but not really having lives of their own.  Most of them are members of Kitty’s family: an interfering sister still nourishing a fancy for Macy, a foster-son called Peter who’s pining for Sylvia; and assorted brothers of varying respectability.

And Neda (the love interest, and a sculptor) is a caricature of a professional creative artist, floating about in a dream while she conceives her art, yet managing to look sexy in the studio detritus all the same. But Palmer doesn’t seem to have been able to make up his mind about just how sexy Neda was to be.

As she paced slowly up and down the platform, her high heels tap-tapping on the concrete,  her eyes glancing continually to where the train would emerge from the tunnel, Neda might have been a woman waiting for her lover.  Her cheeks had the peach-blossom flush, her eyes the soft brilliance, that changed her whole appearance in moments of intensity.  It was only a country train that was due, and there were few people about.  Porters passing with their hand-trucks looked back at her with a curiosity that kindled into warmth.  The severity of her dark costume was lightened by a white blouse that foamed into little frills about her throat; her round face beneath her bird-like hat had a homely sweetness, but perhaps what attracted them was a suggestion of radiance.  Her smile did not seem to reside in her eyes or her lips, but lit up the whole of her.  In spite of the way her feet were crammed into shoes too tight for her, there was a poise, even a springiness, in her robust figure. (p121)

Hmm.  A robust figure, a face with ‘homely’ sweetness and bad taste in hats and shoes.  Possibly  ‘mutton-dressed-up-as-lamb’ in that frilly blouse?  It’s rather a bitchy description, or so it seems to me.  She is not, BTW, waiting for Macy (or any other lover) but rather for her ne’er-do-well offspring who has just got out of some sort of youth training centre a.k.a. gaol for delinquent boys.

Neda’s canny enough to make use of her connection with Macy when she wants something, and she happily abandons her day’s work to go on a picnic with him at his command, but then she shoots through without a forwarding address because she really doesn’t want to rekindle old flames.  She lives for her art and isn’t interested in commitment with anybody (not even the ne’er do well).  But Macy, astute leader of men, isn’t smart enough to figure this out?  Again, not very convincing.

Is it worth reading?  I wouldn’t recommend spending any time hunting out a copy, but as a period piece it has some nostalgia-factor charm.  Palmer’s realism is achieved with snippets that bring the 1950s to life.  Brisbane still has its trams, there are porters on the railway stations, and people read books and play cards at night instead of watching the box.  I felt a vague nostalgia reading about a time when a state politician could move freely around at whim without bodyguards and a media pack at heel.  But considering it’s a book about a major politician there isn’t much of a sense of the state of the Australian nation – neither postwar disillusionment over the Cold War nor the complacent prosperity that characterised the 1950s seems to matter much in this novel.  At the very end there’s a foreshadowing of the 1955 split that was to keep the Labor Party out of government for the best part of a quarter of a century, but it reads like an afterthought and is probably incomprehensible if you haven’t done Oz Politics 101.

Apparently it didn’t sell well…

Author: Vance Palmer
Title: The Big Fellow
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1959
No ISBN
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Grisly Wife Bookshop, Eaglemont.


Responses

  1. The name Vance Palmer excited me so I was surprised by your review. Funny, how we sometimes judge before reading. I just assumed, with Palmer’s pedigree, that ‘The Big Fellow’ would be a well-written yarn. I should have learnt my lesson by now as I have been caught out by this trait of mine many times – thinking that just because someone has done one thing exceptionally well (or even many exceptional things), then everything they do must be first class.
    I am still always shattered when I discover that even the greats are flawed.
    With that inscription though, I think it would be a book to treasure!

    • I know exactly what you mean, and I was doubly disappointed because I had a perhaps naive belief that the early days of this award would have brought us more books as good as the first two winners.

      Yes, this inscription is very special, especially since I can’t resist the temptation to believe that ‘Dorothea’ must be Dorothea Mackellar.

  2. […] third book to receive the award was Vance Palmer’s The big fellow. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has read it as part of her Miles Franklin reading project. She feels it’s not up to the standard of the […]


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