Books

Stephen Orr
This Excellent Machine

About a third of the way through This Excellent Machine, its teenage protagonist, Clem, finds himself in a cafe on the wrong side of town. This is a place where the footpaths are black, because “they’d waited too long to hose down the vomit”. Where anonymous doors lead to underground tattoo parlours and where hand-scrawled signs advertise “massage by the ½ hour”.

But as Clem drinks his coffee and listens to bickering between a young couple, he has a realisation: Loussier Cafe is good fodder for a novel. As Clem muses: “Ellman Street, it seemed, could furnish enough material for years.”

This Excellent Machine, the latest offering by Adelaide writer Stephen Orr and the first in what will be a trilogy of childhood novels, is also founded on conversations. Much of the book comprises Clem’s dialogue with others: his no-nonsense mother, who keeps all memories of his long-gone father banished; his sister, an apprentice hairdresser; his best mate, Curtis; and, most importantly, his granddad Pop, a mechanic with a big heart.

The action takes place over one year in the 1980s in a working-class suburb of Adelaide. Clem, who is 16 when the novel starts, agonises over what to do next. Should he stay in school and matriculate? Drop out and work, like Pop, with cars? Or follow his heart and become a writer?

This Excellent Machine is autobiographical and Orr writes vividly, without nostalgia, about a past Australia, where “backyards are a map of life”, “violence was kept in the kitchen cupboards” and every man or woman has their own quarter-acre. That said, the parallels between Orr and Clem can at times feel forced and self-conscious. Clem throws one manuscript in the bin (title: “The Vagina Cooling Machine”) and later settles on a new work of fiction. It is called, of course, “This Excellent Machine” and in it he wants to “tell the world” about Lanark Avenue, his very own slice of suburbia.

Driving all this forward is the metaphor of the car, in particular an old Datsun that Pop is working on. While Pop’s struggles with dementia provide some drama, this is really a coming-of-age novel about how small parts make up the whole. But at almost 500 pages, it can at times drag. Ultimately, This Excellent Machine is the well-oiled car that runs, but never quite purrs.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Wakefield Press, 492pp, $34.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Stephen Orr, This Excellent Machine". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore