The Odd Couplet

He flies over America in a zeppelin; escapes from Nazi Germany with a retarded man whom he's saved from castration; gets shipwrecked in the Pacific; and finds his way into and out of a pan-European secret state run by a countess. Everywhere Fredy tries to defend the helpless and gets in trouble for his plural loyalties. "The world's divided. Not me," Fredy explains. "I won't shoot my left hand, nor my right."

Murray's strong plot, clear scenes, and memorable characters control his poem: his style serves them, not the other way around. Murray's poem yields excerpts in the same ways as movies yield footage for previews. Here's one scene from the L.A. section:

I was home with a cut face from an exploding saloon

All aboard: Les Murray gives us an around-the-world adventure novel in verse.
Peter Solness
All aboard: Les Murray gives us an around-the-world adventure novel in verse.

Details

Girls on the Run
By John Ashbery
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 64 pp., $20
Buy this book

Fredy Neptune
By Les Murray
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 255 pp., $27.50
Buy this book

in an oater I'd been on, and Jayne the maid-girl she

was in the backyard with little Charlie; he was watering things

with a dribbling hose, but he'd made a full circle of soak

when whing! down comes a wire from a knot of them on a pole

above the fence, and the wet ground jitters and sparks

all round the baby. Jayne grabs for him, steps on the wet

and howls and backpedals; I'm straight down the stairs

and run and grab the wire.

Our hero meets Chaim Weizmann and T.E. Lawrence, and befriends a fellow German-speaker in L.A. named Marlene Dietrich. But the important supporting characters are invented, Australian, and multinational, like "Sam Mundine the Jewish Aboriginal/bait-layer from backblocks Queensland." Fredy's journeys and frustrations make him both an ill-fated pacifist superhero and a 20th-century Everyman, sensitive to (and on the fringes of) the worldwide horrors of the century, of which he becomes (in his leprotic phase) a map: "I opened my clothes and showed my islands and countries,/white, with red crust borders."

Murray gives us as much adventure as we could wish, but his poem is really about Fredy's ethics, which contrast charity, private life, and solidarity with cruelty, snobbery, nationalism, snooping, and snitching. Though some readers will balk at their Christian components, it is hard not to find most of Murray's lessons simply valuable: "There's a common human level you can strike with any people/if you don't impose on them, or scare them, or sound strange. . . . Outside this, all things slope towards war." If Ashbery's slippery lyricism offers pleasures we might call postmodern, Murray's long, globe-spanning, narrative poem gives delight that isn't really modern at all: it's a gigantic, fast-paced adventure story, as good in its way as Kidnapped! or as Star Wars; like those deservedly popular tales, it wears its morals on its sleeve, and recommends ways to behave even as it presents action we can enjoy.

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