THE THORN BIRDS
by COLLEEN McCULLOUGH 530 pages. Harper & Row. $9.95.
Well before its publication, this second novel by a hitherto obscure Australian had become an economic event. Harper & Row ran off 225,000 hardback copies and put up $100,000 as an initial advertising budget. The Literary Guild made the book its main selection for June, relegating Erich Segal's Oliver's Story, a dead-certain moneymaker, to second place. Avon Books shelled out $1.9 million for paperback reprint rights, topping the record $1.85 million that Bantam Books paid for E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime two years ago.
All of which is pleasant news for Colleen McCullough, 39, a neurophysiologist whose youthful ambition to study medicine was blighted by the lack of scholarship funds. This phenomenal shaking of the money tree also underscores the growing trend among once decorous publishers to ape the methods of Broadway and Hollywood. A handful of people are gambling with a lot of money up front that they know what the public will buythat instead of watching Kojak reruns all summer, people will bury themselves in a long saga of life on an Australian sheep station.
The fate of The Thorn Birds will certainly not hang on literary merit. With the broadest strokes and the most perfervid prose, the novel traces three generations of the Cleary familyfrom poverty in New Zealand to wealth in Australia to triumphs on the London stage and in the Vatican. None of the Clearys, however, is as interesting as Australia itself. McCullough knows how to stage convincing droughts, floods and fires. Even her descriptions of landscapes sometimes flare into life.
The characters, however, smolder without burning. Fiona Cleary spends an extended lifetime being a "very unhappy woman" because of the married man she loved and lost in her youth. Daughter Meggie spends her life moping over her love for the devilishly handsome Ralph de Bricassart. One woman who sees him muses: "He's the handsomest chap I've ever seen! An archbishop, no less!" She cannot restrain herself from adding, "What a father you'd have made, Father!" Alas, Ralph is wedded to the Roman Catholic Church. He loves Meggie but he cannot throw away his vows. Meggie pouts: "Off chasing rainbows, that was Ralph de Bricassart."
In fact, most of the male characters come off poorly in The Thorn Birds. A fairly typical sentence runs: "She eyed his flaccid penis, snorting with laughter." The ambitious men are silly and the steady ones are inconsequential. Meggie's eight brothers either die or disappear into the woodwork. Women seem to live forever, while every hundred pages or so another man is burned alive or disemboweled by a wild boar or drowned or unsexed by gunshot wounds. None of this carnage is required by the plot. The males are punished because their punishment is what romantic fiction requires.