Chasing the McCubbin, the debut novel by Melbourne academic and writer Sandi Scaunich, delves into what may be unfamiliar territory for most readers – a world of second hand dealers with nicknames like Blue Merc, Fritz the German and The Builder and His Missus. Beginning in the early ’90s during a financial recession, it is the story of Ron, a widower who has made his trade in finding and fixing up items sold at garage sales and tossed out in hard rubbish. It is also the story of Joseph, a nineteen year old who becomes Ron’s offsider to make a bit of extra money after his mother loses her job.
While the relationship between these two characters is the lynchpin of the novel, it is the detailed descriptions of the art of foraging through other people’s unwanted stuff which draws the reader along through the novel. Sedate in tone, Chasing the McCubbin details a number of the outings taken by Ron and Joseph in Ron’s ancient van as they search for something truly valuable.
Ron tells Joseph of a friend of his who was looking through some junk paintings and accidentally stumbled upon an original Frederick McCubbin painting, thus making enough money to retire on. He tells his young friend that all collectors live in anticipation and hope of the day that they too will unearth something with real value. Along the way, the pair are regularly thwarted by rude sellers, greedy collectors who will snatch at anything that looks promising, and by their own personal issues.
While both Ron and Joseph have real pain in their backstories, the focus of Chasing the McCubbin is their present day situations, and less page time is given to the reader of how they have each ended up in these circumstances. As a reader, I felt more sympathy for Joseph, whose family is facing eviction right from the beginning of the novel (though he does not reveal this to Ron), and whose brother, we learn, has passed away.
While the loss of Ron’s wife is mentioned, his grief is less noticeable on the page except in his solitary nature and her ongoing influence on Ron’s methods. There were moments when Ron felt like a caricature, particular in his manners of speech. He spends much of the novel speaking like a ‘dinky di’ Aussie bloke, making up nicknames for other collectors and yarning to Joseph as they navigate the streets. Some of the things he divulges about other collectors are funny; others are downright cruel. He even comes up with a nickname for Joseph, and begins calling the young fellow ‘Meggs’. The novel is quite dialogue heavy, and the number of scenes focussed on foraging and debating the authenticity of their finds meant there was less focus the novel’s other plotlines.
While the whole novel is in third person, Ron’s voice comes through loud and clear in the sections told from his point of view. There are also sections told from Joseph’s viewpoint, and from that of his mother, Leonie’s. The last third of the book sees the things Ron and Joseph have been avoiding talking about come to a head, and as Ron realises what his young partner has been going through, he shows himself to be far more than the rude, cranky old man that he may have seemed as he narrated their foraging trips.
The level of detail about the second hand world was truly interesting, and it’s clear to me that Scaunich can write beautiful lyrical prose. However, as a whole, the novel was too a little one note and I was unable to get fully engrossed. Chasing the McCubbin explores similar thematic ground to Trent Dalton’s smash hit Boy Swallows Universe, and might appeal to readers who enjoyed that book, though its tone and style quite different. This is a cosy, literary read for anyone who enjoys a deep exploration of unfamiliar subcultures, and not for those who need an action packed plot to keep their interest.