The Tax Collector by Peter Carey tells the story of a young heavily pregnant Tax Inspector called Maria Takis tasked with conducting an audit of Catchprice Motors in the small backwater of Franklin on the outskirts of Sydney in the State of New South Wales, Australia. That may sound boring, but it’s the Catchprice family that are the real stars in this ever so slightly bizarre novel. Granny Catchprice, who believes she still runs the company, is wonderfully realised as a character, and the flashbacks to her childhood and early adulthood and the original dream she had for the business are worthy of a novel in their own right. Her son, Mort, who manages the repair end of things, is one of the most repellent characters I’ve come across in a long while and yet Carey doesn’t resort to any of the obvious clichés in letting us know what he is really like. Her daughter, Cathy, does run the family business, along with her husband, but dreams of extracting herself to pursue her career as a Country and Western singer. Granny Catchprice’s grandson, Benny, who is continually passed over for promotion and actually fired by Cathy at the beginning of the book, simply won’t stay fired and secretly wants to become an angel.
Benny becomes obsessed with Maria despite a big age difference, and Maria is drawn to Mort’s charismatic brother, Jack, who has pursued a career as a property developer and returns to Catchprice Motors to stave off the imminent disaster of her discovery of long standing tax evasion. As several of the characters become increasingly unstable and things spiral out of control, the story becomes one of lost dreams and the awfulness of being trapped in the stifling confines of other people’s failed dreams. I read recently that Carey’s family ran a car dealership when he was a child and I wonder how much of this novel is based on actual experience. I hope it’s very little; the Catchprice family is one of the strangest dysfunctional groups of people you’re likely to encounter in literature.