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Regional Commonwealth Book Prize Winner, 2012
"Me and Mr. Booker . . . [is] about Martha, who, in her determination not to become like the stagnantly disappointed adults in her life, embarks on another rite you may find familiar: the probably painful, perhaps misguided, and definitely enlightening rush to grow up."
"Taylor's straightforward prose captures the nuances of being at an age where you cannot see the differences between being a teenager and being an adult."
"Part Lolita, part Bridget Jones, Martha, witty and wise beyond her years, is lost in a world of dysfunctional adults, particularly the charming, alcohol-soaked Mr. Booker—a seductive chameleon who challenges the reader's assumptions and hopes every step of the way. Cory Taylor is a wonderful writer and Me and Mr. Booker is riveting—a disturbing, darkly comic coming of age story unlike any you have ever seen!" —Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes
"Me and Mr. Booker is a kind of Lolita from Lolita's point of view. It's elegant and controlled and wickedly funny . . .The book offers a bit of sex, but it's ultimately about the momentum of misshapen lives."
—David Vann, author of Caribou Island
"There’s not a false note in Cory Taylor’s brilliant Me and Mr. Booker. Original, devastating, both sad and hilarious, this novel should be read alongside Lolita, giving interior life to the “nymphet” sexually involved with an adult.
Cory Taylor’s writing never calls attention to itself; the perfectly attuned voice rolls over the reader, a silent steamroller, flattening the breath from the body.
—Leslie Daniels, author of Cleaning Nabokov’s House
"Restrained, surprisingly moving and compulsively readable, Cory Taylor’s debut novel is a nuanced and touching portrait of a doomed relationship."
"Deft control of sharp and witty dialogue...Taylor’s no-nonsense voice and eagle eye will assure her of many readers of all ages."
"Vividly cinematic...Taylor’s vivid evocation of lowered expectations and empty lives is understated and memorable."
"Taylor’s take on the oft-explored rite of passage from sweet, open-eyed childhood into the dark sexually charged realms of adolecscent turmoil is distinctive and refreshed by the limitless aptitude of middle-aged men for acting like spoilt teenagers. A vibrant, questioning and unpredictable read."
"Hands down, Me and Mr Booker is one of the best coming-of-age novels I’ve ever read. In it, Cory Taylor has given us an irresistable, whip-smart heroine who thinks and speaks like the 16-year-old you wish you’d been. Me and Mr Booker is sexy, smart and brutally funny, and reminds us that while teenagers grow up fast, it’s only because they’re surrounded by adults who behave like children." --Benjamin Law, author of The Family Law
"Controlled and elegant."
— David Vann, author of Caribou Island
Everything I am about to tell you happened because I was waiting for it, or something like it. I didn't know what exactly, but I had some idea. This was a while ago, after I decided that a girl is just a woman with no experience. I know what Mr. Booker would say on the topic of experience. He would say what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.
First of all there was the question of my age. I was sixteen when I first met Mr. Booker, which can be young or old depending on the person. In my case it was old. I started to feel old when I was about ten, which was about the same time my parents decided they had wasted their chances in life. I knew this because they told anyone who would listen, and this included me. I think disappointment was something I inherited from them both, along with their wavy hair and their table manners. In particular I think it was Victor who taught me at a young age how to lower my expectations.
If you didn't know him you might have thought my father was all right; pompous and opinionated but a lot of men are like that and people put up with them. There are worse things than pompous and opinionated. Even I thought he was all right until I was old enough to know better. After that I saw Victor for what he was. Poison. Once you knew that about him you knew to steer clear. You don't hold your hand out to a rabid dog, not unless you want trouble.
Then there was the question of the way I looked, which I'd started to notice had an effect on people. I wasn't pretty, I was too pale and sad-looking, so it wasn't my face. But there was something in the way I appeared to people, and I'm really talking about the men married to my mother's friends, that made them stare. It had to do with whatever it was I was waiting for. I knew that even before they did, and that was why they liked me, and liked to kiss me on the cheek when they said hello. The ones who had children also liked me to babysit for them so they could drive me home afterwards. I didn't mind. They were nice men. They talked to me as if I was a friend and no one tried anything, except the classical guitar teacher who was Italian, so I stopped minding his kids and gave up guitar lessons.
At school I was an average student. There was only one class I really cared about and that was French. Jessica, my mother, had already decided I was going to the university after I finished school to study to be a teacher like she was, but I didn't want to do that. The only reason I liked French was that Mr. Jolly was our teacher and all I really wanted to do was stare at Mr. Jolly and listen to him reading out French vocab lists for the rest of my life. But I didn't tell my mother that. I told her I would wait and see what my options were before I made a decision about my future.
"You can be whatever you want to be," she said. "As long as you set your mind to it."
Which was strange coming from her because all she'd done was throw away the best years of her life on a lost cause like Victor. Not that I needed to tell her that—she knew it better than anyone. That was the trouble with my mother. She wanted to think she could stop me from making the same mistakes she'd made but deep down she was a believer in fate.
So whenever she started to tell me how much potential I had I told her to stop because she was making it sound like I was holding myself back on purpose, which wasn't true. What I was doing was waiting, like I said before.
Also I was dreaming about leaving her, which I didn't tell her either because it would have made her sadder than she already was. My mother was at a pretty low point and she didn't want to be on her own. I knew that without her having to say it. It was there in the way that she looked sometimes, as if her whole life people had been leaving her and I would be next.
"What would I do without you?" she said.
I told her there was no point in asking me that because it was a hypothetical question. But it didn't stop her.
I also think that what happened had a lot to do with the kind of place we lived in then, which wasn't a city but it wasn't the country either. It was a kind of no-man's-land, a town miles from anywhere that mattered, or that had any kind of smell. And everyone in it was like me, trying to move on and start something, anything at all, even if it was almost certain to go bad.
That was why, at the end of that first summer, I was in Sydney at the Five Ways Hotel waiting for Mr. Booker when I should have been in school.
Mr. Booker had told me he was going to leave his wife and come to Sydney to be with me. And I believed him, because of the way he said it. It was a feverish February night and he was sitting next to me in the dark outside on the terrace with his hand on my bare arm.
"Why don't we just run away," he said. "Somewhere where they won't find us." And then he laughed, not because he wasn't being serious but because he was drunk. So was I. I took another taste of his whisky and felt the sting of it behind my eyes. Everything in my mother's garden started to swim.
And that's the other thing I need to mention, which is that everybody we knew in that town drank too much. It was like nobody could get through the day without a drink.
I had met the Bookers in November at the start of the summer. I'd just finished exams and had one unpromising year of high school left. They came to a party at my mother's house. My father was gone by then. He was living on the other side of town in a kind of motel. Every time I visited him he showed me his rifle. He kept it wrapped up in a blanket and hidden at the back of his wardrobe. He said it was to shoot rabbits with but I don't think he really knew that for sure. He just liked to have it. It showed that he still had some surprises in store for everyone. My mother said he was planning to turn the gun on her some day.
"He's crazy enough," she said.
Not that he had ever hurt her, apart from that one time when he broke her arm and my brother Eddie had to drive her to hospital and wait for two hours while she had X-rays. My brother believed her when she told him it had been an accident. She said she'd fallen and caught her arm on the edge of the desk.
Eddie went to new Guinea after that. As far as I knew he was working on an oil rig. My mother wrote to him every week but he never wrote back.
I used to wonder what my mother saw in Victor, back in the early days before they had Eddie and me. Of course he was a lot thinner then. She had a photograph of him, taken just after they were married, standing on a street corner somewhere in a suit and tie and staring into the camera with a sly smile on his face. He was handsome in a hollow-cheeked kind of way. I used to take the photograph out of the album and stare at it. I couldn't believe that Victor and the man in the photograph were the same person. It was impossible to know which was real: the thin man or the heavy one, the smiling youth or the middle-aged nutter. My mother must have had the same problem, I decided. She must have fallen in love with one man then discovered he was actually someone completely different.
"He was all right until Eddie came along," she told me once. "After that he panicked."
It is hard to overestimate how much my mother relied on parties. They got her through the weekends, because otherwise the time stretched out in front of her every Friday night like a dusty road down which nobody ever came. My mother was a country girl from a place where there were no trees and no neighbors and she knew how it felt to crave company the way a starving person craves food.
She was also catching up from years of having to stop seeing people if my father didn't like them. Victor had deprived her of a lot of friends. Now what she did was send the word out all week that everyone was welcome to come over for dinner Saturday or lunch Sunday, and bring whoever they wanted. That way there were always new people turning up who we'd never met before, people like the Bookers.
The Bookers came because Mrs. Booker had met my mother's friend Hilary at the butcher's shop where they were waiting to buy German sausages. Hilary was from Scotland, so she knew it was hard, she said, when you first moved to a new country and didn't know a soul. Her problem child Philip was in the same year as me at school.
"I've brought them along to show them a bit of local color," she told my mother.
My mother told the Bookers to come in and get acquainted.
"Drink?" she said, showing them into the kitchen where I'd lined up the drinks on the bench with the ice and the glasses so everyone could help themselves.
"A woman of my own mind," said Mr. Booker, which made my mother smile and take his arm and ask him where he and Mrs. Booker had been hiding.
"We weren't sure if the natives were friendly," said Mr. Booker.
"Only some of them," said my mother. "You're among friends."
When they came back into the living room I saw Mr. Booker properly for the first time. He was dressed all in white with a red handkerchief tucked into the pocket of his suit. As he took it out to wipe the sweat from his face I noticed his hands, which had a kind of fineness even though they were so big, and his eyes, which were the color of chocolate and dreamy as a baby's.
"This is my daughter Martha," said my mother.
"Charmed," said Mr. Booker, staring at me the same way I was used to being stared at.
Mr. Booker was English. So was his wife. They came from the same small town somewhere on the border with Wales. They had the same voice. They even looked alike. The same curly black hair and glowing skin, the same way of walking and smoking cigarettes, as if they'd been watching each other and perfecting the same gestures all their lives. Nothing they did was awkward. Mrs. Booker in particular had a coiled cat-like way of moving that was an invitation to stare. She hid her eyes behind her smoky glasses, because it was her perfect body she wanted you to admire. They could have been brother and sister. Mr. Booker explained to my mother that they had left England looking for adventure.
"Britain's finished," he said.
"They're just rearranging the deck chairs," she said.
They talked over each other, as if they were trying to make a good impression.
"Well," said my mother's friend Lorraine who was American and loud, "if it's adventure you're after you've come to the right place." Everybody laughed, given how quiet it was where we lived. A cemetery with lights was what Lorraine called it.
After that I sat and watched them. It was like the sun had come out from behind the clouds, making everything glow. That was the kind of charm they had. now that I knew them I was sorry for all the time when I hadn't.
And Mr. Booker watched me, even when it seemed he was looking at Mrs. Booker or at the other people in the room he watched me, and everything I said made him turn his eyes in my direction so he could pretend to be surprised that I was still there. And he kept saying my name.
"Yes Martha? I'm listening, Martha. You have my full attention, Martha."
"Are you making fun of me?" I said.
"Would I ever, Martha," he said. "What do you take me for?"
Later on I went with them to the shops to buy some more beer and cigarettes. They had a golden Datsun two-seater with real leather trim and a bench running along under the rear window where I lay half on my back with my legs stretched out, breathing in their smell. I told them about my mother and father.
"They broke up," I said. "So now I am emotionally scarred for life. At least that's my excuse."
"For what?" said Mrs. Booker.
"I don't know," I said. "It hasn't happened yet."
They thought that was funny. They glanced at each other and smiled and Mr. Booker said he looked forward to finding out some day.
"So do I," I said.
At the shops I waited in the car with Mrs. Booker while Mr. Booker went in to buy the beer. I told her I liked the perfume she was wearing. She reached into her handbag, took out a tiny bottle and unscrewed the lid. Then she turned around and took hold of my wrist, turning it upwards so she could dab a drop of the perfume on my skin, filling the whole car with its scent. It was nothing really, but at the time it gave me a strange thrill, as if Mrs. Booker already had plans for me without knowing exactly what they were, as if we were all somehow made for each other.
"It's French," she said, touching her gilt-framed glasses. They covered half her face and turned darker in sunlight so that she looked like a blind person.
"Naturally," I said.
When Mr. Booker came back he loaded the beer into the boot then threw the cigarettes in the window. Mrs. Booker lit two cigarettes straight away and handed one to Mr. Booker, then they sat for a moment, breathing in clouds of smoke and letting it leak from their mouths in loops and coils like tendrils of hair. Mr. Booker was watching me in the rearview mirror, not saying anything, but smiling in a friendly way. It was hard to tell how old he was, or Mrs. Booker. They looked young, but because they dressed so formally—he in his white linen suit and she in her sheer stockings even though it was summer—they seemed to belong in the past, which made them feel old, the way black-and-white films feel old even when they're not.
Mr. Booker said he didn't want to go straight back to the party because this was an opportunity for me to guide them around town and show them the sights.
"That won't take long," I said.
"Let's go for a spin, my lovelies," he said, as if he were an actor. I repeated the sentence just the way he had said it, not because I was making fun of him but because I liked the way he made English sound like a foreign language.
"Where to?" said Mrs. Booker.
He didn't answer. He passed his cigarette to me. I took one drag and handed it back.
"I'm sorry," I said. "now it's got my spit all over it."
"As the actress said to the bishop," said Mr. Booker.
I didn't understand the joke, but I pretended I did.
"Don't be coarse," said Mrs. Booker, slapping her husband's thigh. That's when I laughed, because he grabbed hold of her arm and held it in mid-air for a moment.
"Don't touch me," he said. "You don't know where I've been."
For an hour we drove around town. They pointed out the university where Mr. Booker taught film history, and the school where Mrs. Booker taught grade two. They pointed out the flat they lived in, up on the fourth floor of a building that looked like a car park.
"Chateau Booker," they said, talking over each other again.
I pointed out the motel where my father was staying.
"He seems happy enough," I said. "He never liked houses. That's why we moved around so much."
I listed all the places we'd lived, as far back as I could remember.
"What's wrong with houses?" said Mr. Booker.
"Don't ask me," I said. I told them how he kept a bedroll in the boot of his car so he could go out and sleep in the bush whenever he felt like it.
I pointed out my father's car parked in its usual spot, a plum-colored Jaguar he'd bought secondhand after my mother gave him some money if he promised never to ask her for any more.
"He likes the open road," I said.
"What ho," said Mr. Booker. "Toot toot."
On the way back to the party we came through the pine forests that skirted our suburb. In the afternoon heat the trees gave off a waxy smell as if they were melting. When we came down over the hill all the houses around us shone like reflections in glass. I asked if England was anything like this and they said no because it was never this hot, or it hadn't been for years.
"I'd like to go there one day," I said.
"What for?" said Mr. Booker.
"To look for my roots," I said.
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Booker glancing back at me to see if I was serious.
It wasn't true. I had no particular reason to want to go to England except that I'd seen it on television. I just wanted to go anywhere that wasn't here.
Excerpted from Me and Mr. Booker by CORY TAYLOR Copyright © 2011 by Cory Taylor . Excerpted by permission of TIN HOUSE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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