The good thing about reviewing Stephen Orr’s latest book Incredible floridas is that you know the end at the beginning, so there’s no need to worry about spoilers. The end, the one that you read at the beginning that is, is that Hal, the 22-year-old son of artist Roland and his wife Ena, commits suicide. By the end, the real end that is, you have some understanding of why he does, but you are also left to think about the drive to create art and its impact on family, about parental love and father-son relationships, and about that notion that it takes a village to raise a child.
To make this work, Orr uses a flashback-style chronology. The novel starts in 1962, just after Hal’s death, and then flashes back to 1944, when Hal is 4. From there it moves forward in irregular bunches of years -1948, 1950, and 1956 – until we arrive again at 1962 where it takes us through the events leading up to the death. This, then, is not the book for those who seek excitement and plot. Rather, it’s for those who love character, are intrigued by families and neighbourhood relationships, and like historical fiction.
There’s more to it than this, however – and it relates to the artist-father Roland. He is clearly modelled on the Australian artist Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) about whom I wrote a couple of years ago. Roland’s work and career as described by Orr – his angular lonely figures in stark landscapes, and the decline in his reputation – is similar to Drysdale’s. And Drysdale’s biography – his having a son and daughter, his being rejected for war service because of a detached retina, and his son committing suicide at the age of 21 in 1961 – is similar to our fictional Roland’s.
And then there’s the title. “Incredible floridas” rang a bell with me, and a little research brought it back. Peter Weir made a short film called Incredible Floridas in 1972. (It’s available on YouTube.) It portrays Australian composer Richard Meale (1932-2009) creating his work, Incredible Floridas, which was inspired by the 19th century French poet, Rimbaud. Curiouser and curiouser.
But, how much of this is relevant to Orr’s novel? Well, Meale’s work is an homage to Rimbaud, just as Orr’s is to Drysdale. And Weir’s award-winning short film has been described as “a wonderful tribute to artistic inspiration” which we can see in Orr’s book. Then there’s Rimbaud’s poem, “Le bateau ive” (“The drunken boat), which includes the words “incredible floridas”. It’s about inspiration and ecstasy, and their downsides, disappointment and disillusion. There are, in fact, several references to boats in the novel, paper ones and a painting Roland does of a child in a boat with panthers, another reference to Rimbaud’s poem, in the background.
And, while I’m at it, there are also allusions to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Pt I. Hal is nick-named Prince Hal, and the allusion is underlined by one character telling him to watch out for Hotspur. The irony, of course, is that our Prince Hal does not win out in the end.
I hope all this hasn’t been boring – or worse, off-putting. The book can be read very comfortably without knowing any of this, but I love the layers they contribute. Now, the novel.
“casualty of art”?
Set in mid-twentieth century suburban Adelaide – mostly – the novel tells of Hal’s growing up within a small community comprising, primarily, his family (father, mother and older sister Sonia) and neighbours Mary, her brother Sam, and her lupus-afflicted daughter Shirley who is ostracised and bullied by the neighbourhood kids. Other characters, who appear more sporadically, include Roland’s art school friend James, Mary’s cousin Trevor, and Hal’s grandmother Nan who works for Dr Bailey. These make up “the village” which raises, or tries to, Hal.
From 1944, when Hal is 4, it’s clear that he’s not an easy child. And it’s also clear that Roland is driven by his art – “art was an all-or-nothing proposition”. How these two are related is central to the book. Hal regularly feels he comes second, but Roland is not the stereotypical dark, inward-looking artist. Sure, he thinks about his work most of the time, and sure, he had his “periods … months on end when they barely saw him”, but he is also seen engaging with the family and making time for Hal. Finding the art-life balance is a challenge for creators, particularly when they work from home. Always being there doesn’t mean they are always available. Is Hal a “casualty of art” or are his problems something else?
When Hal is around 16 years old, directionless and acting erratically, sometimes violently so, Roland takes him on the first of several road trips because “he knew that Hal could only be made better under the stars” (albeit Ena thinks Hal “needs a proper doctor”). To a degree it works, but Roland can never quite get it right. Of course he thinks about art and makes sketches – creating a visual diary of the trip – while they travel, but he’s also there communicating with his son, talking about options, and not pushing him to be anything in particular. Unfortunately, Hal doesn’t see the love, the sacrifice, the wish for him to be “happy”. He just sees it as Roland “trying to improve his character”.
Stepping into some of the gaps left by Roland’s busy-ness is next door neighbour Sam. He becomes a second father to Hal, taking him to the racecourse, providing his own thoughtful counsel when Hal comes calling, and making significant sacrifices to help Hal. Nan’s employer, Dr Bailey, is also generous. But Hal just keeps on getting into scrapes – at school and in the neighbourhood. He has few friends because, as he himself realises, he doesn’t know how to be one. As Ena says in the opening section, “Hal was Hal, and his wires were crossed”.
While art and the artist’s life is an overall theme, this is primarily a book about men, about fathers and sons. And Orr portrays them so authentically. There are women here too, but this is the mid-twentieth century and it’s essentially a man’s world in which women’s agency is limited. All they can do, Ena sees, is to follow the men, and try “to make the unworkable work.” Similarly, poor Shirley sees the sacrifices Sam makes for Hal, who has treated her poorly, and wonders where she fits.
So what more is there to say? The writing is clear, evocative and, what I especially love about Orr, includes wonderfully natural dialogue. I’ll just share one excerpt (but it’s so hard to choose!). It comes from 1944 when four-year-old Hal and Roland visit an airforce base with Trevor Grant:
Uniform or not, things were looking up. Hal studied the plane’s wings and asked his dad, “D’yer reckon it’s got guns?”
“D’yer reckon I could look inside?”
Grant and the other man approached them. The man messed his hair. “This is top secret,” he said. “Has Corporal Grant administered the oath?”
“Well, he will, later. And once you’ve taken it you can’t say nothing about this to no one, or else the government will come lookin’ for you. Got it?”
Roland noticed the same look on his son’s face, as Hal studied the two men. Like he’d just seen a comet for the first time. Something marvellous, new; a boy in a boat in a jungle full of panthers.
Incredible floridas is the third Orr book I’ve read, the others being The hands (my review) and Datsunland (my review). What keeps me coming back is his ability to capture ordinary, day-to-day human interactions, human hopes and fears, with such realism and warmth. There’s no judgement from Orr. He leaves that for the reader to consider.
Lisa (ANZlitLovers) is also a Stephen Orr fan and enjoyed this book.
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)