Caught in tight places

By Rhonda Dredge

The CFMEU office is at the centre of Lindsay Tanner’s new novel Comeback as the union tries to sort out a crooked developer with shonky safety practices and traps a taxi driver in its web. 

Jack van Duyn is back as the protagonist with a taxi full of troubles and a few decisions to be made.

It’s a case of which direction produces the least heartache.

Tanner works in a Collins St tower in real life but it’s the knockabout culture of the northern edge of the CBD and the streets around Carlton that he relishes.

The narration of Comeback is closely focused in the plodding mind of Jack van Duyn (pronounced Doon) as he deals with ants, tenants, a disloyal partner, union officials, thugs, developers and a dodgy love interest.

Honesty is Jack’s badge of office. He expressed all of his self-doubts in the first of the taxi driver series Comfort Zone and he is at it again in the sequel. 

Tanner is not afraid to use this selfish, blokey bachelor as a guide, positioning the reader as a passenger being driven around by a friendly motor mouth and it’s quite relaxing, in a nostalgic kind of way. Little is left to the imagination.

On the left is the deceptively plain facade of the CFMEU office in Elizabeth St, on the right is the socially adept Legal Aid in Moor St, further down the road in Bourke St is the fictional Morelli’s café where secretive Worksafe officers meet frightened clients. 

As Jack journeys between these locations, the fight at the centre of the novel is revealed. Auspart, a crooked developer has been responsible for the death of a worker. Jack has inadvertently witnessed the accident. The company is about to hit the media for its connections in high places and lack of safety procedures on building sites. 

Instead of tackling these industrial issues head-on, Tanner, who was a federal ALP minister, has had a chance to remake his political concerns in a way that feels real by looking at the complications through the eyes of Jack, an ageing inner city worker struggling to make a dollar.

Tanner wants Jack to get more engaged in issues beyond his own finances yet he understands why Jack is reluctant and shows how easy it is to end up on the street. Jack’s denial of a social conscience provides the challenge for Tanner’s best writing – in the form of a string of small-time thugs, losers and officials who try and trip him up.

There’s a shifty tenant association boss who resorts to blackmail, a homeless guy who constantly embarrasses Jack with his pleas for the return of a loan of $100, Billy the Hippy who plies him with psychedelic rock and a CFMEU boss who outsmarts him.

The novel makes an appeal for a local kind of character who keeps his head down. There is no denying that Jack is hard-done by, familiar, berated, left behind and so attuned to irony that it protects him like a shield. It’s easier for Jack to expect the worst and even make it happen than deal with success or take a risk.

Aussie noir has more humour than its American counterpart. Jack is certainly up shit creek but instead of having a shoot-out with the hoods he is fleeing, he takes shelter in a kid’s play centre where the opportunities for getting stuck in tight places are played for all their worth.

If you’ve ever tried to squeeze yourself down a plastic tube made for toddlers, then this is the book for you. 

Comeback, Lindsay Tanner, Scribe, 2019  

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