Lucky’s begins in 2002. Vasilis “Lucky” Mallios, a 70-something Greek-American-Australian in Sydney has just been rejected by yet another bank for a loan. He’s dreaming of fixing his “story” before it’s too late. Meanwhile 30-something Emily flies in from London on an assignment for the New Yorker to write about the Lucky’s franchise of restaurants, founded by the aforementioned. Emily is a bit down-and-out too; she lost her job as a subeditor and has just found out her husband has a girlfriend. She suffers from self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
In the novel’s world, Lucky’s was a chain of American-style diners that belied their largely Greek diaspora ownership. It reached its heyday in the seventies, before entering a long decline, culminating in a tragic shooting in 1994 known as the Third of April. Emily has a painting of one of the restaurants from her dad Ian Asquith, who suicided in 1971 when she was eight. The narrative is driven by the story of Lucky’s life, and how Emily’s father played a role in it. Flipping between decades, Lucky’s builds a portrait of migrant life in Australian in the late-20th century. The characters are a delight, particularly Lucky’s father-in-law Achilles, who is as mad and angry as his mythological namesake, leading to some of the novel’s most grim and hilarious scenes. I remember someone saying about Shakespeare that a comedy is just a tragedy with a happy ending, and throughout Lucky’s walks that line. Characters are dispatched and plots resolved with economy, mirroring the fortunes of life. I felt ever so slightly that this technique takes some of the energy out of the story’s climax, in which the driving questions of the book come suddenly to an end.
With a character with the name of its protagonist, it’s clear this novel is about the capriciousness of fortune. Like many migrant tales, Lucky’s is one of the self-made man, arriving with little and making a name for himself, literally. When things go bad, he turns to gambling, perhaps a way to take control, or to put it all in the hands of the gods of luck. His is contrasted with Ian’s story, the son of English landed gentry, whose main problem in life is not how to make a living, but what to do with it. Emily similarly represents the kind of middle class ennui so common today. When you’re free from survival, the burden of figuring out what to do with yourself can feel life threatening. Even so, Lucky’s suggests that wealth and privilege matter little. Life is a wheel of fortune, and you never know where the wheel will land.
Luck intersects with the novel’s theme of belonging in Australia. Although Emily’s mother was born in Australia, Emily didn’t first visit until she was eight. Lucky’s foreignness is doubled; the Greek community call him “the American” and he struggles with his place in the community. “The idea of ethnic purity,” he thinks in a gambling den, “Was a diaspora fantasy. Everyone in this room was a mixture of influences, a new type of person. They accepted their impurity or they didn’t”. Of course pretty much everyone in Australia is from somewhere else, and even today a third of Australians were born overseas, with England making up the largest proportion. This idea of starting life again in a new world evokes Donald Horne’s widely misinterpreted Lucky Country. Horne didn’t mean lucky in the complimentary sense it is often used. Australia was lucky, due to to its resource wealth, and adaptable, but it was squandering that luck, Horne argued, a conclusion that is becoming ever more pertinent as the damage of 250 years of extractive industries becomes apparent. Luck always runs out.
Throughout Lucky’s Pippos’s writing is tremendous and strange, leaning in to weird metaphors and descriptive passages, like the apartment building across the road from Lucky’s “a tower with its pockets turned out”. It reminded me of Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Life To Come, similarly a story of people from elsewhere in Sydney. It’s a startling display of verisimilitude, not least the creation of an entire decades-long restaurant franchise. On more than one occasion I was looked up some detail expecting it to be real, only to find it must be Pippos’s. This invention too is key to the story, with characters longing to slip out of their own lives into another’s, or pick up where theirs left off. The deconstruction of Emily’s New Yorker article is a kind “how the sausage is made” window onto the sometimes dirty business of storymaking. Characters throughout commit lie and cheat and commit identity fraud, all in the name of rewriting their lives.
Gay rating: not gay.