Allen & Unwin 2006
This remarkable book establishes Andrew McGahan as one of Australia's top authors. Underground makes an obvious political statement – basically that the war on terror and the whole Howard era has been total bullshit – a statement which for some reason other novelists have not put forth so lyrically. McGahan eschews a heavy diatribe for something more oddball, something more accessible, something more Matthew Riley. The resulting novel is a very imaginative, very comic, action thriller, compared justly on the back cover to both Orwell and Dr Strangelove. Despite the fact that the Howard years are now behind us, we can only hope that the book is read widely and fully appreciated by a young audience – so that they know the terrors that might have been – so that they steer the country well clear in future...
The setting is less than a decade away, but Australia has become a police state, a true fascist dictatorship. Leo James, entrepreneur and estranged brother of the PM, is captured by a terrorist group during the chaotic impact of a Queensland cyclone. Thenceforth Leo is propelled through a series of rescues, shoot-outs and recaptures – thrown from one farcical situation to the next. He winds up in the custody of a blokish resistance fighter, an agent of the enigmatic “Oz Underground”. Alongside a white Jihad-enthusiast called Nancy, the three uncover just how unbelievably mendacious the government has become. Meanwhile the action is interspersed with chunks of the background story – elaboarating on how things got to be just this dystopian and putting us in the shoes of Mr Leo James in time for the strangely touching conclusion.
Underground is very gently satirical, although it occasionally culminates in scenes of true comic brilliance. The Australia vs America cricket match is one of these – “Nothing to stir the blood in the sight of flummoxed ex-baseballers swinging and missing at a nicely contrived off-cutter or deceptively looped bit of leg spin...” Another hilarious notion is the “Citizenship Verification Test”, used by sinister government henchmen to discern rogue elements in the populace. The questions here are about Bradman's batting averages, the poetry of Banjo Patterson, and who bowled the underarm ball - “Trevor Chappell. And it bloody well was legal.”
And this is the big success of Underground – it criticizes excessive nationalism while somehow reaffirming “Aussie” culture. Maybe Leo James represents the Australian identity – wayward, but despite past indiscretions is able to reestablish himself as honest, tolerant, understanding – willing to act beyond mere self-interest.
The only thing worth criticizing here is the non-event title that fails to distinguish the book from so many others. This is McGahan's fifth book, in a catalogue that includes the Vogel Award winning Praise, and the Miles Franklin Award winning White Earth. The fact that Underground is distinctly different again, says something about his ability.