Because I am elitist, and because I am a snob, I had completely dismissed the contents of the 2005 Books Alive Great Read Guide, and not just because of the rather tired attempt at half-rhyme by second-rate copywriters. Books Alive is a government selected (so you know it's good) panel of 'industry experts', who have, according to their website, created a programme that will encourage literacy by recommending material that is "a great read for every Australian." Cynical moi had therefore decided that the List, which advocates such instant literary classics as "The Complete Book of Working Dog Stories", Bryce Courtenay's "The Power of One" and "The Cook's Companion", was at best merely an exercise in getting rid of a stack of unpopular books that had been clogging publisher's storerooms; at worst, an attempt by our beloved leaders to steer the course of our country's intellectual development by proscribing a set list of texts, knowledge of which would soon become requisite to citizenship.
But I couldn't have been wronger. Or more unright. Some claim that you can't teach people to read by throwing a dictionary at them; I have always maintained, though, that you should try hurling both a dictionary and something worth reading at them, rather than undermining their intellectual capacity with something violently second-rate: Bryce Courtenay's Adventures in Turgid Triumphalism for Big Boys and Girls, say. But Books Alive has pre-empted me. Those buggers know how to think big. For you see, purchasing any item upon this list for budding literati scores you a free (just right for tight-wads like me!) copy of the latest masterpiece from Australia's greatest living author: Matthew Reilly's Hell Island.
I hadn't hitherto read any of Mr Reilly's oeuvre, having dismissed him as a Dan Brown/Tom Clancy manque. Now I am kicking myself. An extension of charity towards his work reveals Reilly as a master of modernist prose: like Joyce before him, he plays with sentence and narrative structure to dazzling effect. Gone are dead weights like simile and metaphor; gone are the unnecessary complexities of character development, subtext and realistic dialogue; gone are all four of those useless adjectives. Everything is rendered obsolete to make way for the unstoppable march of the plot.
And what a plot! Why, it charges at you with all the pace and ferocity of a genetically mutated, technologically augmented, heavily-armed psychotic gorilla. Which, incidentally, is what the story revolves around. A group of all-American special-ops Marine types with cool macho call-signs that reflect their characters (handy, since character is established by no other means) - and one greasy-wop-deigo Mexican Marine without a call-sign who inevitably betrays the others - parachute down to Hell Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an army warship. What could have happened? Are crazy GM techno-apes responsible? I don't want to spoil things for you, but let's just say... yes. Yes they are. Pretty soon, there's blood flyin', guns are goin' Blammo!, and for our heroes, it's Hell on earth. You could say they've walked into Hell. Hell has no fury like... as you can see, Reilly's use of cliche is subtle, delicate, deliciously ironic.
The cumulative effect is to produce something akin to the writing assignment of a creatively defunct year seven student who has just watched Aliens for the first time. But this is not to equate Mr Reilly's work with the verbal jism of a thirteen year old boy who has one hand firmly ensconced in his Y-fronts while the other scientifically examines the contents of a cavernous nostril. Not at all! Hell Island's genius is that its form essentially mirrors its function: the satirically sophomoric, adolescent style is an implicit reflection of the immature and violent flailings of the military-industrial complex that dominates the book - a vicious and amoral child which, if not reigned in, may one day destroy us all. With a race of atomic super-gorillas.
This and many other lessons I have taken away from Hell Island, not least of which is that the sound of a bullet entering a skull is Sprack!, that despite scientific evidence to the contrary it is "Fact: gorillas are much better climbers than human beings", and that a real woman, when overwhelmed by a snarling pack of gun-toting death monkeys, will reduce their heads to a spray of bloody chunks whilst making quips that even Herr Schwartzenegger would find unrealistic.
A good read for all Australians? My god, it's glorious.