Reputation can make a bully of poets, and the celebrated Australian poet Les Murray--a fat man who was also, quite apparently, a fat boy--has often used his poetry to redress the abuses he long ago suffered at the hands of playground brutes and cruel girls. As pathetic as such attempts might be in the hands of a less capable writer, Murray has used his old wounds as starting points for some startling and wholly unconventional conclusions.
Here is Murray in 1997's Subhuman Redneck Poems, laying some of the groundwork for his worldview:
But all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual
Mass refusal of unasked love; that works. Boys cheered as
year-old girls came on to me, then ran back whinnying
All of Murray's late themes are present in Subhuman Redneck Poems: an equation of individual pain and humiliation to ostensibly larger and more severe social atrocities; the comfortable refuge of xenophobia; the cranky solace of Catholicism. In "The Last Hellos," he serves up a typically fierce blessing: "Snobs mind us off religion/nowadays, if they can./Fuck them. I wish you God." "For the Sydney Jewish Museum" contains a caution that museums are also "a fortress/in which you keep alive the Enemy....but beware: preserve the defeated/and all the defeated win." And Murray equates sex with Nazism in "Rock Music."
Rock 'n' roll, sex, war, holocaust, casual cruelty, unattractiveness--all such confusion and suffering is equally capable of producing a crippling empathic whiteout. In the person of Fredy Boettcher, the hero of Murray's new Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the poet has created a beleaguered twentieth-century Everyman through whom we may experience the apparent dangers of a compassion too wholly felt and too widely extended--in modern parlance, "compassion fatigue."
Told in 255 pages of eight-line stanzas, Fredy Neptune is a sprawling Grand Guignol that drags its hero willy-nilly through the pivotal events of the first half of the century. Boettcher is a German-Australian sailor who witnesses the burning of a group of women in Turkey at the onslaught of World War I. The experience precipitates a case of leprosy that leaves Boettcher insensate but possessed of superhuman endurance and strength, an exhausted Nietzschean superman whose physical strength seems to grow in direct proportion to his inability to feel anything. "My nonchalance/evaded the fellowship of suffering," Boettcher says, and adds later, "My struggle was a body that wouldn't face atrocity, and vanished."
Thus established as the King of Pain, Murray's hero is uniquely qualified to lead us on a rambling, horrific tour across the century. Equal parts Hercules, Odysseus, Pickwick, and Job, Fredy Boettcher wants only to return home. But his Homerian misadventures carry him ever further from that goal, and he is swept headlong into the events of both world wars, carried across continents and seas, and caught up in conspiracies, family feuds, bar brawls, and the stock-market crash. He serves time as a circus strongman (where he takes the name Fredy Neptune) and finds work as a Hollywood extra, where he meets Marlene Dietrich: "She bleached the color from every marriage on the set,/I reckon, and meant to, then walked her force of life away slung." Dietrich, inexplicably, befriends the protopathic strongman, and drops by his apartment with groceries: "I know poetry and starvation and cold cuts/said the most glamorous woman then in the world/as we stowed beef haunches and wurst in the Frigidaire."
Murray crams Fredy Neptune full of such wondrous, incredible detail, and never pauses for breath. Poor Fredy Boettcher is the unmoved mover made flesh. Incapable as he is of truly feeling or fully participating emotionally in events, he is nonetheless clearly possessed of some numb, residual, and redemptive compassion. What doesn't kill him does indeed make him stronger, but he also retains very human and virtuous instincts that allow him to champion and defend the underdog, time and again. The odd triumph of Fredy Neptune is the realization that Boettcher's handicap is not that he cannot feel, but that he feels too much. In a century of such pell-mell horror, there is simply too much to feel, and Fredy's retreat is one understandable human response.
Murray cannot wholly escape the problems inherent in the novel-as-verse. Amid the onslaught of details, much poetry and music have been sacrificed for the sake of narrative. The book bogs down in sections, hamstrung by Murray's attempts to insert as much history and suffering as he can. And Boettcher's voice, with its reliance on the hurly-burly rhythms and brawny colloquialisms of his native Australia, can become wearisome. The eminent critic Helen Vendler has accused Murray of "hiding out behind outback yarns," and there is plenty of that in Fredy Neptune. There are also plenty of wonderfully lucid and lyric moments, as when Fredy describes the appearance of a zeppelin:
It was a sweet lilac sky, with air so clear the day moon
looked like a washed potato, up above the phone wires.