The Big Bazoohley. By Peter Carey Faber #163;9.99 - 0 571 174833
Carey's novels are scattered with oddballs who turn their backs on convention and trust to chance, even if they are not addictive gamblers such as Oscar and Lucinda. Many of them look odd too: Lucinda is a weird beauty, Tristan Smith in The Unusual Life is a charming grotesque.
His first book for children, a witty, multi-layered moral fable about risk-taking and misleading appearances, introduces gambler-in-training Sam Kellow.
Sam has been reared in the shadow of Mr Kellow's reverence for the Big Bazoohley: the ultimate jackpot. When the windfall proves elusive, the boy stakes his all to save the family fortunes - a suitably heroic goal.
The setting has fairytale flamboyance too, given a timeless quality by Abira Ali's illustrations: a grand hotel, sealed off from the outside world by a blizzard, its plush hallways lined with doors that open on opportunities. There are as many possibilities in the tale as there are room numbers. Like the matchbox-sized paintings Sam's mother produces, it reveals layers of secrets.
Despite his haphazard feast-or-famine upbringing, in which he has been forced to play sensible parent to his father's inner Mr Micawber, Sam is refreshingly normal. Carey makes a virtue of his everyday looks and un-flashy persistence in a story which lets the real triumph over the sham and just deserts over indiscriminate luck, allowing him to dazzle with unexpected accomplishments like mental arithmetic. While "waiting for the next lucky number to speak to him" in the family tradition, Kellow junior gatecrashes a contest for child advertising stars. Carey debunks the glitz of the competition circuit, and creates a monstrous stage mama in Muriel, who kidnaps Sam and forces him into her son's ill-fitting shoes.
Sam's brief career as a "Perfecto Kiddo" is given hilarious slapstick treatment, but every child who has ever had to perform for the grown-ups will recognise the underlying humiliation.
Sam does not get his big win for playing the system well (he gets a Disgrace mark for deportment) or for picking the lucky digits (he's using someone else's). His number comes up when the disenchanted celebrity on the judging panel spots him as the real thing. In the scramble for a top modelling contract, a glimmer of genuine personality is as rare as the Big Bazoohley. As the ugly, eccentric millionaire with a secret home in the subway system laments: "sadly, people are affected by one's appearance".
Carey is preoccupied with deceptive images. The shiniest child stars are poisonous brats; Sam's father's facade of competence crumbles under pressure; all that glitters is not gold. Sam gets the goods for giving and hazarding all he has.