Despite laudable efforts by Vikram Seth and Anne Carson, the novel in verse isn't exactly a fashionable genre. It seems to promise readers a ripping good yarn, only to bog them down in slant rhymes, enjambments, and other linguistic niceties. Yet even the staunchest fiction fans may find it hard to resist the charms of Les Murray's Fredy Neptune
. For one thing, the hero--an Australian itinerant named Friedrich Boettcher--engages in the sort of adventures that are usually reserved for his opposite numbers in prose. Fredy fights aboard a German battleship during World War I, witnesses several of the worst slaughters of our century, and journeys from the Holy Land to Africa to America to the Far East before making a final landfall back in Australia. But Murray's eight-line stanzas are also eminently readable: slangy, swift, and jam-packed with narrative propulsion.
Fredy Neptune isn't, it should be said, a mere action movie in verse. After our hero witnesses the genocidal slaughter of some Armenian women, he undergoes a sympathetic reaction that would perplex the likes of Indiana Jones:
I was burning in my clothes, sticking to them and ripping free again
shedding like a gum tree, and having to hide it and work.
What I never expected, when I did stop hurting
I wouldn't feel at all. But that's what happened.
No pain, nor pleasure. Only a ghost of that sense
that tells where the parts of you are....
Detached from human feeling, endowed with superhuman strength, Fredy continues his odyssey, which takes him through so many of the era's premiere trouble spots. At one point he fetches up in Hollywood, serving as "an extra just then for the famous Prussian director / who I thought sounded Australian, when he wasn't talking English." And there he encounters poetry-loving vamp Marlene Dietrich, who sells him once and for all on the merits of Rilke's "The Panther": "It sat me up. This wasn't the Turk's or Thoroblood's 'poems', / big, dangerous, baggy. This was the grain distilled. / This was the sort that might not get men killed." Murray's own poem is too discursive, perhaps, to match Rilke's 86-proof lyricism. But it's plenty big and dangerous, and even in its baggiest moments, Fredy Neptune
remains an exhilarating read. --Bob Brandeis
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From Publishers Weekly
Australia's best-known poet has surpassed himself: this entertaining, sprawling, serious novel-in-verse is the best thing Murray (Subhuman Redneck Poems) has written. His expansive, colloquial free verse and eight-line stanzas?sometimes chewily irregular, sometimes conversationally fluent?hide their verbal subtleties in order to hook readers on character and plot. After Freddy Boettcher, an Australian sailor of German descent, sees women burnt alive in Turkey in WWI, he develops psychosomatic leprosy. When he recovers he has gained superstrength but lost his sense of touch. Over the next 30 years he visits (mostly unwillingly) Constantinople, Egypt, Jerusalem, Queensland, Paris, Kentucky, Hollywood, Switzerland, Nazi Germany, Sydney, Shanghai and New Guinea; meets (among others) Lawrence of Arabia, Chaim Weizmann, Marlene Dietrich, the mad-scientist aesthete Basil Thoroblood and the hermaphrodite ex-artilleryman "Leila, now Leland" Golightly; wrestles a "poor opium-mad bear"; inspires the creators of Superman; and becomes a reporter, a circus strongman, a fisherman, a father, a swamp-dredger, a hobo, a movie actor and a Zeppelin crewman, mostly while trying to get home to his wife. Fred's first-person story, "big, dangerous, baggy," makes him a (literally) numb modern Everyman and a spokesman for tough-minded, populist pacifism: "There were no sides for me: both were mine. I'd seen them both." He also defends masculinity, saving a retarded German from castration by bringing him to Australia. If Murray's first verse-novel, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, struck many readers as sexist, this one will not. Fredy Neptune overflows with story; the roller-coaster stanzas stay clear and memorable: "I leaped up, healthy again, and gravity hung my boots downwards." Murray's deliberately talky, ungainly style can disfigure his shorter poems; it's perfect, though, for this eventful, globe-trotting?and, it turns out, deeply Catholic?modern epic, linked almost equally to Homer's Odyssey, Milton's Paradise Regained and Lucas and Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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