“A homeless, unemployed, unloved man, overweight, under-muscled, greasy-haired, pasty-skinned, his forehead scabbed and bruised from the fall, one eyeball stained red thanks to a burst blood vessel, wearing paper underwear, over-eager like a panting Labrador, babbling at her about giving his kidney away to a stranger. Why would anyone accept an organ from such a man?”
Useful is the first adult novel by Australian author, playwright, and television scriptwriter, Debra Oswald. As Sullivan Moss recovers in hospital from an unsuccessful suicide attempt, a routine enquiry from a nurse gives him an idea: he will make up for his hitherto useless existence by anonymously donating a kidney to a stranger. His determination to see this one thing through amazes those who know him. His ex-wife, despite having every reason to abandon him, manages to find him a place to live. Natalie, divorced mother of Louis and a producer of breakfast radio, needs someone to house-sit her recently-deceased father’s flat and look after his ageing dog, and Sully fills that vacancy.
As Sully makes an earnest effort to satisfy the donor requirements, he finds himself making new friends and reconnecting with old ones. Extended sobriety is a new experience for Sully that changes his perspective: “One of the many disadvantages of sobriety was this feeling of separation from people frolicking together on planet Pleasantly Pissed while he orbited on Space Shuttle Sober. He didn’t feel critical of the drinkers, but more benignly observant, like a wildlife documentary maker”, although there are lapses: “He needed an alcohol-sensitive lock on his phone, like the breathalyser ones they put on car ignitions. Given that such a device did not exist, he should avoid drinking at all, so there would be less risk of dumb phone calls that upset good people.”
As her characters deal with a myriad of life’s challenges: death, suicide, sex, psychiatric evaluations, raising children, finding a purpose in life, alcoholism, a corpse in the wrong place, asbestos removal and cancer, Oswald manages to include plenty of humour, much of it quite black. Readers are warned that, when her characters get agitated, some resort to expletives, and also indulge in some rather disappointing behaviour, demonstrating just how flawed human beings can be.
Oswald gives the reader a plot that is entirely believable, with a twist or two to keep it interesting. She includes some marvellous imagery: “The business worries that clamped him down during the day were put aside, and with his family around him, he expanded, like bread dough rising. Joyful bread dough” and “She imagined her mother’s words fluttering down over her like ashy fall-out from a chemical weapon attack, seeping through her skin to eat away at her guts” and “An encounter with Natalie’s mother was like having lemon juice tossed in your eye” are just a small sample.
This is a wonderful story: clever and laugh-out-loud funny, but also heart-warming and with enough emotion to choke up the most callous reader. Oswald’s screen- and play-writing experience is apparent on every page and readers will look forward to more from this talented author. A brilliant read.