Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Brendan Gullifer
Paperback, 357 pages, ISBN: 9781740667340, April 2009, RRP: $24.95
In his launch speech for Sold, author Brendan Gullifer says that his book is about “where we get to when outcomes are pursued in complete disregard of consequences or ethics. And people are rewarded accordingly. It’s the Australian Wheat Board. It’s Enron. It’s Barings Bank. It’s Lehman Brothers. It’s George Bush. It’s John Howard. In the long term, it’s completely unsustainable.” Sold is a funny and fast paced novel that explores this unsustainable industry from the inside out. Will Pittman is the main protagonist, a failed Sydney Swans footballer, who has just joined the ranks at Prender & Prender Reality. He’s young, fresh faced, and eager to make his new career work. But it’s a cut-throat world he’s in and others know how to play the game much better than him.
Although Pittman knowingly gets himself into some rather touchy and unethical situations, including pretending to have Testicular Cancer, and covering up a theft, he remains likeable to the reader as he tries to find a way to both earn a living and remain on the right side of ethics. Gullifer has a keen sense of irony, and the supporting characters are equally rich and plausible, even the ghastly comic bad guy Dally Love – the super seller, whose overt sense of righteous self-control almost makes sense at times:
So when a client received a phone call, or a birthday card, or a gift hamper or a personally addressed letter, or any one of a dozen other points of contact from Dally Love, they thought how thoughtful. But they were just small points ina database that was interacting with a checklist of to-do items. It was ABL – always be listing. The system, Dally thought, was superbly efficient. (176)
Dally’s Tony Robbins’ styled smoothness, even when he falls on his face, coupled with a mean streak, makes you want to hate him, and its hard not to cheer on his nemesis Freddy Bradman and her mentally disabled brother Gerard, as they progress their ill-thought through plan to unseat the king of real estate. But then there’s Harry Osborne, or The Fox as he’s aptly called. He’s less clichéd than Dally, and both more sympathetic as he struggles to deal with rising debts and a failing marriage, and more dangerous as he becomes increasingly desperate and willing to do anything to make that increasingly elusive sale. The plot plays out in a straightforward tale that is driven by Will’s slightly naïve perspective and awakening, coupled with Dally’s drive, the Fox’s plans, and Freddy’s revenge. That there are plenty of loose guns (including Terry Henderson or Hendo, the seemingly friendly sales manager who hired Will) and misfires in this likeable and absolutely believable story only adds to the enjoyment. Both Dally Love, and The Fox undergo their own transformation, but neither of them get quite the comeuppance that one might like. That said, there are plenty of laughs in the ultimate company that Dally forms, with its acronym of LIAR, not to mention the irony in the fellow’s name itself.
The novel is not only rich in character, but also in setting. Gullifer writes about Melbourne with the close perspective of someone who has sold property there. The tree lined suburbs, and even its old boys clubs are all featured, as the competition for listings takes place. There are also little stories behind the book, such as the real life struggle to save the Abbotsford Convent from a high density conversion into 289 units – the kind of cramped, unsustainable housing that the Fox rightly calls ‘superstition driven’ on the first page of the novel. Gullifer places Dally Love squarely in the midst of that struggle, in the unpopular role of developer. It’s quite possible to read the novel without knowing about that seven year struggle between sustainable low density living and an arts based community, and the corporate world of takeovers and profit driven housing, but knowing the history adds another layer of veracity and meaning to an already rich book.
Underneath the fun, there is a serious message about the whole seedy undercurrent beneath the dream that drives, not only real estate, but much of the corporate world. It’s about the ‘deal’ and what it takes to make it and what making it does to your sense of self. Not all of the agents are cutthroat, though most of them are, and not all of them are at the edge of a precipice, though most are moving that way. Though the villains are suitably bad and the good guys reasonably decent, there are some lovely twists along the way that throw the whole notion of truth into chaos and leave the reader, like Will, questioning every motive. Sold is a sparkling debut novel that combines ironic, sardonic humour with a hefty dose of eye-opening reality. Buying (or selling) a house will never seem the same again.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.