The unusual name of this book is never explained until the very end, and then it sums up in a neat joke the thing that’s at the heart of the book. Little William Badger spends his life in a whirl of incomprehension at the strange behaviour of his fascinating mother Rose, and longs for stability, even if it’s just in the form of having his very own store mannequin to be his inseparable companion and best mate. When he catches sight of a document bearing the name “Longleg” along with the more familiar family names, he christens his imaginary friend “William Longleg”, and imagines the two of them “striding off across unexplored territories” far from the little fibro house in the suburbs of Sydney.
Abandoned by his mother for what seems an interminable time in a boarding house in Manly, he spends his time sitting in the hedge waiting for her to return, committing to memory sections of a hair-raising book called Underground, or Life Below The Surface, where he learns about miners dying in flooded mines, the gambling hells of Germany, the illicit ivory trade in Africa, and “unchaste” women in the underworld of Paris. The never-explained abandonment by Rose and the lurid world revealed in Underground are the underpinning of William’s emotional and intellectual world as he grows up, travels, and falls ineptly in love with various women well beyond his comprehension.
It’s very funny – the scene at Christmas when William ends up in jail, accused of attacking his mother with an axe, is like your very worst nightmare of Christmas Day with the family –and very touching. William is doing his best to become real to himself and others, but real life seems always out of reach. It’s only at the very end, when the Longleg mystery is solved, that he feels his feet firmly on the ground, that he has a past, a history, the one thing, the only thing, that a person could truly possess. He is free – and the planet was still spinning. There was a certain beauty in it all
I loved Adams’ Dancing On Coral, and this is just as good.