Meet the Deans
“The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father more than any other man, just as they adore my uncle more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them . . .”
Heroes or Criminals?
Crackpots or Visionaries?
Families or Enemies?
“. . . Anyway, you know how it is. Every family has a story like this one.”
Most of his life, Jasper Dean couldn’t decide whether to pity, hate, love, or murder his certifiably paranoid father, Martin, a man who overanalyzed anything and everything and imparted his self-garnered wisdom to his only son. But now that Martin is dead, Jasper can fully reflect on the crackpot who raised him in intellectual captivity, and what he realizes is that, for all its lunacy, theirs was a grand adventure.
As he recollects the events that led to his father’s demise, Jasper recounts a boyhood of outrageous schemes and shocking discoveries—about his infamous outlaw uncle Terry, his mysteriously absent European mother, and Martin’s constant losing battle to make a lasting mark on the world he so disdains. It’s a story that takes them from the Australian bush to the cafes of bohemian Paris, from the Thai jungle to strip clubs, asylums, labyrinths, and criminal lairs, and from the highs of first love to the lows of failed ambition. The result is a rollicking rollercoaster ride from obscurity to infamy, and the moving, memorable story of a father and son whose spiritual symmetry transcends all their many shortcomings.
A Fraction of the Whole is an uproarious indictment of the modern world and its mores and the epic debut of the blisteringly funny and talented Steve Toltz.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
resides in Sydney, Australia. A Fraction of the Whole is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue. My lesson? I have lost my freedom, and found myself in this strange prison, where the trickiest adjustment, other than getting used to not having anything in my pockets and being treated like a dog that pissed in a sacred temple, is the boredom. I can handle the enthusiastic brutality of the guards, the wasted erections, even the suffocating heat. (Apparently air–conditioning offends society’s notion of punishment—as if just by being a little cool we are getting away with murder.) But what can I do here to kill time? Fall in love? There’s a female guard whose stare of indifference is alluring, but I’ve never been good at chasing women—I always take no for an answer. Sleep all day? When my eyes are closed I see the menacing face that’s haunted me my whole life. Meditate? After everything that’s happened, I know the mind isn’t worth the membrane it’s printed on. There are no distractions here—not enough, anyway—to avoid catastrophic introspection. Neither can I beat back the memories with a stick.
All that remains is to go insane; easy in a theater where the apocalypse is performed every other week. Last night was a particularly stellar show: I had almost fallen asleep when the building started shaking and a hundred angry voices shouted as one. I stiffened. A riot, yet another ill–conceived revolution. It hadn’t been going two minutes when my door was kicked open and a tall figure entered, wearing a smile that seemed merely ornamental.
“Your mattress. I need,” he said.
“What for?” I asked.
“We set fire to all mattress,” he boasted, thumbs up, as if this gesture were the jewel in the crown of human achievement.
“So what am I supposed to sleep on? The floor?”
He shrugged and started speaking in a language I didn’t understand. There were odd–shaped bulges in his neck; clearly something terrible was taking place underneath his skin. The people here are all in a bad way and their clinging misfortunes have physically misshaped them. Mine have too; my face looks like a withered grape, my body the vine.
I waved the prisoner away and continued listening to the routine chaos of the mob. That’s when I had the idea that I could pass the time by writing my story. Of course, I’d have to scribble it secretly crouched behind the door, and only at night, and then hide it in the damp space between the toilet and the wall and hope my jailers aren’t the type to get down on their hands and knees. I’d settled on this plan when the riot finally took the lights out. I sat on my bed and became mesmerized by the glow from burning mattresses illuminating the corridor, only to be interrupted by two grim, unshaven inmates who strode into my cell and stared at me as if I were a mountain view.
“Are you the one who won’t give up his mattress?” the taller of the two growled, looking like he’d woken up with the same hangover three years running.
I said that I was.
“It’s just that I was about to have a lie–down,” I protested. Both prisoners let out deep, unsettling laughs that sounded like the tearing of denim. The taller one pushed me aside and yanked the mattress from my bed while the other stood as if frozen and waiting to thaw. There are certain things I’ll risk my neck for, but a lumpy mattress isn’t one of them. Holding it between them, the prisoners paused at the door.
“Coming?” the shorter prisoner asked me.
“It’s your mattress,” he said plainly. “It is your right to be one who sets on fire.”
I groaned. Man and his codes! Even in a lawless inferno, man has to give himself some honor, he’s so desperate to separate himself from the beasts.
“As you like,” he said, a little disappointed. He muttered something in a foreign tongue to his cohort, who laughed as they left.
It’s always something here—if there isn’t a riot, then someone’s usually trying to escape. The wasted effort helps me see the positives of imprisonment. Unlike those pulling their hair out in good society, here we don’t have to feel ashamed of our day–to–day unhappiness. Here we have someone visible to blame–someone wearing shiny boots. That’s why, on consideration, freedom leaves me cold. Because out there in the real world, freedom means you have to admit authorship, even when your story turns out to be a stinker.
Where to begin my story? Negotiating with memories isn't easy: how to choose between those panting to be told, those still ripening, those already shriveling, and those destined to be mangled by language and come out pulverized? One thing's for sure: not writing about my father would take a mental effort that's beyond me. All my non-Dad thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him. And why should I avoid it anyway? My father punished me for existing, and now it's my turn to punish him for existing. It's only fair.
But the real difficulty is, I feel dwarfed by our lives. They loom disproportionately large. We painted on a broader canvas than we deserved, across three continents, from obscurity to celebrity, from cities to jungles, from rags to designer rags, betrayed by our lovers and our bodies, and humiliated on a national then cosmic scale, with hardly a cuddle to keep us going. We were lazy people on an adventure, flirting with life but too shy to go all the way. So how to begin to recount our hideous odyssey? Keep it simple, Jasper. Remember, people are satisfied-no, thrilled-by the simplification of complex events. And besides, mine's a damn good story and it's true. I don't know why, but that seems to be important to people. Personally, if someone said to me, "I've got this great story to tell you, and every word is an absolute lie!" I'd be on the edge of my seat.
I guess I should just admit it: this will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if it's an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love.
I should also say this just to get it out of the way:
My father's body will never be found.
Most of my life I never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge, or murder my father. His mystifying behavior left me wavering right up until the end. He had conflicting ideas about anything and everything, especially my schooling: eight months into kindergarten he decided he didn't want me there anymore because the education system was "stultifying, soul-destroying, archaic, and mundane." I don't know how anyone could call finger painting archaic and mundane. Messy, yes. Soul-destroying, no. He took me out of school with the intention of educating me himself, and instead of letting me finger-paint he read me the letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo right before he cut off his ear, and also passages from the book Human, All Too Human so that together we could "rescue Nietzsche from the Nazis." Then Dad got distracted with the time-chewing business of staring into space, and I sat around the house twiddling my thumbs, wishing there was paint on them. After six weeks he plopped me back in kindergarten, and just as it started looking like I might have a normal life after all, suddenly, in the second week of first grade, he walked right into the classroom and yanked me out once again, because he'd been overcome with the fear that he was leaving my impressionable brain "in the folds of Satan's underpants."
This time he meant it, and from our wobbly kitchen table, while flicking cigarette ash into a pile of unwashed dishes, he taught me literature, philosophy, geography, history, and some nameless subject that involved going through the daily newspapers, barking at me about how the media do something he called "whipping up moral panics" and demanding that I tell him why people allowed themselves to be whipped into panicking, morally. Other times he gave classes from his bedroom, among hundreds of secondhand books, pictures of grave-looking dead poets, empty long necks of beer, newspaper clippings, old maps, black stiff banana peels, boxes of unsmoked cigars, and ashtrays full of smoked ones.
This was a typical lesson:
"OK, Jasper. Here it is: The world's not falling apart imperceptibly anymore, these days it makes a loud shredding noise! In every city of the world, the smell of hamburgers marches brazenly down the street looking for old friends! In traditional fairy tales, the wicked witch was ugly; in modern ones, she has high cheekbones and silicone implants! People are not mysterious because they never shut up! Belief illuminates the way a blindfold does! Are you listening, Jasper? Sometimes you'll be walking in the city late at night, and a woman walking in front of you will spin her head around and then cross the street simply because some members of your gender rape women and molest children!"
Each class was ...
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