Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2018

Poor Man’s Wealth, by Rod Usher #BookReview

Sometimes I come across a gem of a book like this and I think, how did this one pass me by when it was first released? Rod Usher is an Australian author who now lives in Spain, and I stumbled on Poor Man’s Wealth in the library.  It turned out to be just the perfect book to read to offset the bleakness of The Story of a Brief Marriage and my only hesitation in recommending it is that you may have difficulty finding a copy.

I picked up the book because Rod Usher’s name was vaguely familiar to me: it’s probably because he was once the literary editor at The Age newspaper.  But Usher is an elusive author, and the most I could find out about him was at this exuberant post at Carol Kean’s blog.  Never mind, this novel speaks for itself, and this book will resonate with anyone who cares about the fate of small towns around the world, places being depopulated because in our crazy globalised world, there is not enough work for young people in rural areas, causing an exodus to cities.

Here is the blurb:

Part fable, part love story, part comi-tragedy, Poor Man´s Wealth is narrated, somewhat unreliably, by El Gordo–the Fat One. He is the mayor of Higot, a dusty village in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country under military rule. He and the secret Marisol Committee–a group of local councillors–dream up a plan to save the village from economic death and the exodus of its young people, especially now that tobacco–their one source of income–is a suspect crop. They start a hoax. El Gordo, whose charming English comes via a library bequeathed to him, argues that the hoax which so changes the life of Higot is no more a deception than, say, the Loch Ness Monster, Ireland´s Blarney Stone, the Colossus of Rhodes… Can they pull it off and attract tourists to unattractive Higot? Will the hunchback Bartolomeo, a sex scandal involving a bicycle, or the military junta blow the hoax apart, see its perpetrators ‘disappeared’? El Gordo takes the reader on a joyous, witty and wise journey through the travails of his village…and his heart.

The characterisation is so vivid that you can’t help but become invested in their fate, you find yourself cheering the love story on from the sidelines, and the plot is so cunningly constructed it will leave you guessing right up to the end.

Although Usher subtly tackles the corruption of the junta and the anxiety it evokes even in an out-of-the-way place like Higot, and there are sly asides about English class consciousness, the tone is comic throughout.  El Gordo’s lack of confidence in himself, his naïveté about so many things, and his stumbles with the intricacies of the English language render him a most lovable narrator:

Marisol Ruiz is not what you English speakers call a chicken of the spring (p.2)

When he had finished the last of the empanadillasGunther looked at his watch and said we should get down to brass business. (p.95)

At the Bar Vals, Enrique Ruiz, a cousin of Marisol in Juar, rented a machine with an arm that picks up a record and plays it.  Only one or two of our songs, the rest what Enrique calls American, which he says is the music young people will pay to hear.  I have listened to some of these songs and I am still not convinced the language is truly English.  (p.121)

I quickly told her I had come to do some tidying in my office and to receive some official visitors.  I am not sure which surprised her more.  Upstairs I moved various columns of papers to leave two chairs empty.  Footsteps could be heard coming up as I scrummaged in the cupboard for the framed photos all mayors must have on the wall.  (p.175)

El Gordo’s adventures with English verse are cheeky.  (An English expat called Mister Giles had made him a bequest of his library).  At a crucial moment in… um… #NoSpoilers! a promising relationship … is saved by the rhythm of the poem ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘ by Robert Browning:

I still do not have much more idea of what it means than when Mister Giles first read it to me but, as he said then, I got the thrust of it.

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.  (p.92)

Later on, a verse that comes to mind was one confirming the life I was now living rather than flavouring it with someone else’s sensations:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.

As I was swimming into half sleep I considered translating the lines of Mister Donne for #NoSpoilers! <snip>, a cheeky way to teach her the English words of placement. (p.204)

Rarely does one chuckle when reading a book that shows us the marginalised, the poor, the powerless and even the Black Dog of depression.  I do not want to give this book back to the library!

Author: Rod Usher
Title: Poor Man’s Wealth
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 9780732294519
Source: Kingston Library

Look out for a second-hand copy from Fishpond: Poor Man’s Wealth and yes, if you’re quick Brotherhood Books has one for $7.00.  The only thing that stops me buying this for myself is that I want someone else to be able to enjoy it #TruthBeTold but such altruism may not last.  However, (I hate to say this because you know how I hate The Big Behemoth) you can also get a Kindle edition for $14.00.


Responses

  1. Woo hoo, I actually remembered to like this post. I also like the cover. And the book sounds delightful too. I love reading about small towns. When I read something that says “part fable …” I start to worry that it goes off into flights of fancy – and right now I am looking for recommendations for my Mum and her reading group so want not bleak novels but ones with something to talk about. However, they are an older group – even older than we are – and like books that they can follow. (Unfortunately, not all of them like Classics like Mum!)

    I’ve never heard of Usher, but I guess I’ve never really read The Age.

    • Well, I think there are issues to talk about, such as El Gordo’s change of heart about developing the town, but the problem is going to be getting enough copies for a book group.

      • Yes, I guessed that, but thought I’d ask about the book anyhow.

        (Thanks for fixing the typo – I really wish we could fix our own comments other blogs)

        • Yet, you know there must be heaps of them still around. Harper Collins would have published a decent print run… so where are they all?

          • Possibly scattered around secondhand shops, libraries, bookcases all over??

            • I guess. I just hope they’re appreciated, wherever they are.

  2. “Remembered” not “remember”! (I’m hopeless at liking I’m afraid.)

  3. Keen to read Usher. Thanks for bringing him to my attention Lisa.

    • Let me know if you manage to find a copy:)

  4. Lifeline bookfest started today in sunny Brisbane. Among other goodies I got a copy of Henry Reynolds Law of the Land as previously discussed and found a copy of Rod Ushers A man of Marbles. Not Poor Mans Wealth but hey beggars cant be choosers. Both for the princely sum of $2.50 each. :-)

  5. I’m always nervous when Australians make fun of non Australian accents – Nino Culotta anyone? – but this sounds like genuine comedy. I’ll have to see if I have any Usher in all my shelves of Oz books bought in bulk.

    • Don’t worry, this is well done. This is more about acknowledging the heroic task of learning English than poking fun.


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