Reviewed by Carl Delprat
by Stephen Orr
352pgs, ISBN: 9781743055076, Nov 2017, RRP$32.95
When four new books arrived for review in my letterbox I noted Stephen Orr’s Incredible Floridas was amongst them, and saved it for last. I still haven’t got over Orr’s Datsunland, a brilliant yet brooding set of short stories. I found some of these rather upsetting in structure and content so I did my reading in instalments over a number of weeks. I still remember their affect, it was as if Orr’s writers hand had inserted itself right in past my ribs and then twisted a few internal organs about. He certainly has a talent for making suburban experiences translate into unsettling aptitudes. I was interested in seeing what his latest novel would do to me.
In Incredible Floridas, Orr’s recognisable style was evident. He slips along the lines with a confidence of expression not many writers possess, and has chosen 1962 as an initial date point of reference. It appears that we are in Darwin of all places and sharing the lives and experiences of a 42-year-old man and his family. But this seems to be just a reflection and they are not in Darwin at all. In fact I’ve no idea where in Australia this family is residing. I look at the back cover for a hint, but to no avail. As the pages turn, Brighton and Glenside get a mention, then Westerly, and finally Burley Avenue Pennington. I look that up on Google Maps and conclude we must be residing somewhere in Adelaide, South Australia.
Times and places appear to so often remain in a form of flux throughout this novel, and to help me keep track I began underlining the locations with a yellow highlighter. As for those past decades chosen by Orr, I only have to close my eyes and it all comes back to me as if it were yesterday. Every neighbourhood seemed to have a problem son like Orr’s Hal: the one who started all the fires, or sometimes shot at you with his air rifle, and all too often kicked a neighbour’s garbage tin up and down the street. One of them actually threw my younger brother off a cliff.
Orr’s story presents a family coming to grips with the elephant in the room and the many excuses one can make for it. This is not your ordinary domestic assembly of a breadwinner, his wife and two children. Orr’s central character is a professional artist. As a casual artist, I empathised with Hal’s father. Creativity must be expressed and this artist somehow manages to maintain a steady flow of original production while dealing with the demons tormenting his problem child’s mind.
Of all the numerous varieties of father/son relationships, Orr has created an exceptional emulsion. Two incompatible mind-sets separated by totally different mental barriers pretend to obey society’s regulations until one recognises the futility in it, and terminates. Page by page I can imagine young Hal chewing on a thumbnail while wondering where his place actually is within this confusion.
This was a difficult book for me to review, in spite of the obvious finesse, because of the difficult subject matter. Orr has chosen a difficult path to explore; one that not many writers would choose to ever touch, and I’d say that he has raised the bar rather high with this work.