Book review: Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Life can be so unremittingly bleak at times, 2020 being a perfect case in point, that it’s important to be reminded of the opportunities it affords for salvation, redemption and fresh starts.

These are not exactly lying on the ground for us to gather up as we will, but as Lucky’s by debut Australian novelist Andrew Pippos makes clear in prose beautifully written and richly affecting, that it does not mean it’s bare-to-non-existent either.

In fact, the chance to remake things can make its presence felt right at the point when you have given up hope of it happening at all and from a set of circumstances that deft any ideas you may have nursed about how it could come to pass.

Vasilis “Lucky” Mallios is one man who knows a thing or two about the peculiar vagaries of life although when we first meet him, years after his chain of Greek-run cafes have ceased operation and he is a near-broken, bankrupt with not much but airy hope to his name, he is a long way from being handed a golden ticket to the charmed rest of his life.

In fact, all he has left are memories and dreams and a highly unlikely idea that if we can just win enough money on Wheel of Fortune, he can establish one last cafe, get it up and running and bequeath to the next generation who might be able to do what he could not.

“The train crawled down the platform at Central Station. Valia stepped off early and walked alongside the slow-moving carriage. The sky was lifting: it had recently rained. First, she’d find a coffee and cigarette. Then the Collins Hotel. The future turned with each tiny decision.” (P. 66)

A massive pipe dream? Certainly. But that does stop Lucky? Not at all, who at the time of the novel’s present day in 2002 Sydney, is well into his seventies with only rampantly unlikely dreams to keep him going.

What is so appealing about Lucky is how resolute he remains even in the face of tragedy aplenty.

A clarinet-playing Greek-American who arrives in Australia in 1945, falls in love with a local girl Valia Asproyerakas and never leaves eventually becoming the driving force behind the family’s cafe The Achillion, Lucky is a man used to pushing his luck.

Caught impersonating Benny Goodman in Sydney at a time when the famous musician was nowhere Australia – it was 1945 and touring musicians were understandably thin on the ground as war continued to rage in the Pacific – Lucky always believed he could make anything happen.

He believed he would be married forever, be the best father anyone could ask for, and that his empire of Greek diners – a major feature of the Australian cultural and culinary landscape in the mid-to-late twentieth century, these eating establishments gave Greek Australians a chance to secure a foothold in the country but also introduced many Anglo Australians to a culture almost unfamiliar to them – would expand and last well beyond his lifetime.

Andrew Pippos (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

He is, by any estimation a dreamer of the higher order.

So much so that while Lucky’s sees him rise and fall in ways he never envisages, Lucky never quite lets go of the idea that he might just make it after all, even in the dying days of his life.

Someone who’s also looking for a shot at second-chance redemption is Emily, an English journalist who arrives in Sydney in Sydney in 2002 to write a profile of Lucky and his restaurant chain, an article borne of a close connection she believes she has to him by virtue of a painting of one of his diners given to her as a child by her troubled father.

Mired in considerable troubles of her own, Emily’s mission is as much personal as it is professional as she tries to make peace with her past as much as she is desperate to see what kind of future might be in the offing.

Lucky’s is a sublime delight, filled with characters that leap from the pages with quiet vivacity, and with a raw, involving humanity that you cannot help but relate to, no matter your cultural background.

It’s fascinating, of course, to be taken into the bygone world of Greek diners and to the diaspora than ran and sustained them – the author is both a member of this diaspora but also part of a family that once ran one of these diners – but the struggles of people like Lucky and Emily are universal, centering on a need we all have to find meaning and purpose in life, to love and be connected to our families and to feel like what we did mattered.

“On the footpath they did not embrace. The space between them expanded and Valia turned and walked past the tobacco shop. The green sign of a coal cellar, an Italian baker, a bookstore. Leaves and pollen flew everywhere. Lucky, watching through the window, took a deep breath and held it for a long time. Of course he loved her. Permanence in the face of life’s transience.” (p. 256)

There is a great deal of tragedy in Lucky’s which doesn’t pretend for a second that hopes and dreams, and the hard work that must inevitably accompany them, will open doors of opportunity like magic.

For all its charm and sense of beautifully-realised time and place and its population of a period of time stretching from 1945 to 2002 with characters so memorable they are indelibly imprinted on your head and heart, what really gives Lucky’s emotional resonance is it willingness to be brutally honest about difficult, painful and sad life can be.

That doesn’t mean that you spend the novel fired in the very worst possibilities of human existence, with humour and the quiet, happy moments of life very much in evidence, but for the good times and the power of second chances to mean anything at all, and they do very much in their wonderful novel, we must first understand the power of life to maim, cause unimaginable pain and to disappoint.

Pippos succeeds with his immersive storytelling because for all his honesty about the way life can let you down, he is also a believer about its ability to rise from the dead and do something quite remarkable.

That it does so, shouldn’t be a surprise but how it does, and how this subverts the expectations of the main characters in the book, is a joy to read, making Lucky’s a new Australian classic, one of those novels that not only opens your eyes to a culture that may not be your own, but lifts the veil from your perceptions of your own life, blighted or not and to the very real possibility that redemption of a kind is always possible, even if it is a way that defies anything you might have thought possible.

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