The big escape

By Benjamin Law

On Cory Taylor and her classic novel

Me and Mr Booker, by Cory Taylor. Text Publishing

Never trust an adult who didn’t want to escape their hometown as a teenager. Okay, that might be an over-generalisation – a too-harsh assessment on folks I’m sure are perfectly lovely – but I usually find better company in people who spent their formative years somewhere they despised, but managed later to escape. The kind of people who were forced to wait (and despaired over having to) before plunging into a new life, even if they weren’t fully equipped to handle it. Scrap that: especially if they weren’t equipped to handle it. They’re always the interesting ones.

As a pimply teenager in the coastal suburbs of Queensland watching my parents struggle through a protracted, gruesome divorce, I wasn’t depressed, exactly (though, thinking about it now, maybe I was), but I couldn’t wait to leave home. I suspected there was something deficient about the kids at school who didn’t feel the same. My friends and I were the ones crawling out of our skins, who couldn’t wait to bolt out of the gates as soon as we graduated, for the kind of reasons one character expresses in Cory Taylor’s novel Me and Mr Booker:

Anywhere’s better than here … You need to get away. If you stay here you’ll wind up with some boring nobody called Shane or Wally who wants six kids and a brick veneer in the ’burbs. And one day you’ll wake up and decide to stick your head in the oven because it’s better than facing another conversation about football or whether little Wally is a faggot because he likes reading books.

It was after my big escape to the city that I met Cory. She was around 20 years my senior, but we went to the same university and she shopped at the bookstore where I worked. We clicked right away. She was the best company: scathingly funny, so well read, and could talk for hours about books, films and Japan – everything I loved. She’d also grown up in a place she’d loathed: in her case, suburban Canberra in the 1970s. And then, as she was finishing her screenwriting doctorate and I was starting mine, she suddenly announced she was in the final stages of the manuscript of a novel.

In her half-decade at Text Publishing, Cory’s first editor there, Caro Cooper, says she had only two or three manuscripts she “absolutely had to publish”, of which Me and Mr Booker was one. The appeal was instant, the voice was convincing, and the story was so cinematic that it was obvious the writer had a film background. The novel was very short in its first iteration, so Cory expanded it. After that, barely any work was needed.

When I got the manuscript of Me and Mr Booker, I printed half of it, greedily inhaled it on a plane, read the rest on a laptop until the batteries ran out, then desperately resorted to reading the last few pages on my dimming phone. It was that compulsive. Reading it again reminds me why. On the surface, the plot is utterly grim. You could argue this is a story about mental illness, domestic abuse and statutory rape. Yet Cory makes so much of it savagely funny, because her teenage protagonist, Martha – like so many teenagers – is smarter, darker and dryer than any adult in her orbit. As one exchange with Martha’s bleak-as-fuck and crazy-as-shit father goes: “‘I have a chemical imbalance in the brain,’ he said. ‘That’s a relief,’ I said. ‘I thought you were crazy.’”

Me and Mr Booker might sound like a conventional coming-of-age tale: 16-year-old girl is bored; 16-year-old girl falls in love; 16-year-old girl learns important lessons about life. But it only takes one chapter for you to realise this novel won’t be standard coming-of-age fare. Few opening chapters end with a hilariously dry account of a teenager matter-of-factly putting the balls of a married man – a man twice her age – into her mouth. Some reviewers were shocked: “Be warned,” the Australian said primly. “There are some unsettling sex scenes between Martha and the older man.”

Yet, when the ABC’s Book Club discussed the novel in 2011, the critic Jason Steger called it a “deceptively impressive book”, meaning it as a compliment. Me and Mr Booker pulls off the almost-impossible trick of being a riveting novel about teenagers, not intended for teenagers. This is a novel for the people those smart teenagers become, and it reminds us that nothing makes you grow up faster than being surrounded by adults who behave like children.

Me and Mr Booker was first published in 2011 – it isn’t even a decade old. Yet the timing of this new edition feels right: its publication comes exactly one year after Cory died, aged 60. And I defy you to read this novel and tell me it isn’t deserving of “modern classic” status. Me and Mr Booker happily upends the idea of what an Australian classic should be. For so long, the term has suggested – at least to me – stories of old white men romanticising the bush and probably shearing a lot of sheep. Those stories are fine, I guess, but they’ve nothing to do with the experiences of so many Australians coping with the low hum of desperation that comes of living in unremarkable urban places away from the bush or the beach. I love how this novel captures those places, that mood, so perfectly.

I also love how the novel is partly a song of praise to mothers, and the resilience of women who’ve endured life in small worlds alongside smaller men. As Cory’s close friend Barbara Masel pointed out to me recently, one thing that permeates all of Cory’s books – her two novels, and her memoir – is a keen sense of revisiting and re-evaluating how characters feel about their parents. “It’s something she wanted to explore in her film work,” Barbara says, “but people were so behind in understanding how rich that world can be. She was very close to her mother, and there was a sense of wanting to repay something to her.” (Cory dedicated Me and Mr Booker to her.)

Here is Martha, whose feckless father has abandoned her and her mother and is suspicious of Martha’s involvement with the rakish Mr Booker, an Englishman who lectures in film and looks “like a pimp”:

I picked up a kitchen knife and made some stabbing movements in the air to see if I could get her to smile, and when she did I put the knife down and folded the letter away. I asked my mother what she wanted to do with it and she told me to put it on her desk with the others.

“I think you should burn them all,” I said. I was stung by what my father had written about me and the Bookers. It was the kind of thing he was always saying about my mother’s friends, but this was the first time he had said it about me. I told my mother she should set fire to an effigy of my father on the front lawn and do a war dance around the flames.

“One day,” she said.

Cory died – far too young – in 2016, a mother to two young men herself. I wish I could declare a public holiday in honour of her and her work. Nowadays, Caro Cooper tells people Cory is one of the Australian authors everyone must read, adding that, if Cory had started publishing novels at 25 instead of in her 50s, her body of work would have elevated her to the status of a female Tim Winton. I agree. For so many of us, there’s such an ache at Cory’s absence that we’re close to hurling her books in people’s faces, demanding they be read.

So it’s consoling that her writing was acknowledged and celebrated while was alive. Me and Mr Booker won the Commonwealth Book Prize (Pacific Region) in 2012; the follow-up, My Beautiful Enemy, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2014; and Dying: A Memoir was shortlisted for the Courier-Mail People’s Choice Award and the Stella Prize. Dying came with praise from the likes of Julian Barnes, Margaret Drabble and Hilary Mantel. Before she died, Cory joked of Barnes’s endorsement that “it was almost worth getting cancer for”. Sounds like something Martha would say as an adult. Funny, that.

Not long before Cory’s death, her fellow Queensland writer Melissa Lucashenko told her that, while she loved Cory’s memoir, she felt sad Cory didn’t feel a stronger connection to the places where she’d grown up. In Australian Aboriginal cultures, connection to land is central. There’s the added belief, Melissa explained, that everyone is born for a reason; no life is random. “So, obviously I was born to be a writer,” Cory told the ABC’s Richard Fidler in her last radio interview. “I’m happy to believe that might be true.”

As a gift Melissa presented Cory with part of a paperbark tree that had its roots in one of the places where Cory grew up, explaining that she and the paperbark tree came out of the same soil. The leaves of that tree hung in Cory’s line of sight in her final weeks. I like to think of Me and Mr Booker as the book-shaped equivalent of those branches and leaves. 

This is an edited version of Benjamin Law’s introduction to the Text Classics edition of Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor (RRP $12.95), available now via Text Publishing.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


Me and Mr Booker, by Cory Taylor. Text Publishing

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