NEW YORK — Bryce Courtenay, an Australian advertising executive who started writing novels after his 50th birthday and became perhaps the most popular writer in his country, died Thursday at his home in Canberra. He was 79.
In September, Mr. Courtenay announced on his Facebook page that his forthcoming book, his 21st, would be his last, because he had terminal stomach cancer. Penguin Group, which published his book ‘‘Jack of Diamonds’’ this month, announced his death in a joint statement with his wife, Christine.
Mr. Courtenay was known in the United States for just one book, his first, ‘‘The Power of One,’’ published in 1989. A fast-paced, hyperbolic coming-of-age story set in South Africa in the 1930s and 1940s, it told of the Dickensian childhood of Peekay, a white South African of English descent, replete with persecution and triumph.
‘‘On almost any scale of measurement, ‘The Power of One,’ has everything,’’ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a review in The New York Times. ‘‘Suspense, the exotic, violence; snakes, bats, and Nazis; mysticism, psychology, and magic; schoolboy adventures, drama in the boxing ring, and disasters in a copper mine.’’
The book became an international sensation, selling more than 8 million copies, and it was adapted into a 1992 film with Morgan Freeman and Stephen Dorff.
Though Mr. Courtenay never had a success on that scale again, he annually pumped out doorstop-size novels — including ‘‘Jessica,’’ about the tribulations of a farm girl, set in the Australian bush country against the backdrop of World War I; and ‘‘The Potato Factory,’’ a novel set in 19th-century London and Australia, featuring the adventures of a thief and a prostitute, among others — whose episodic, incident-filled, often world-traveling contents routinely propelled him to the top of Australian best-seller lists.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that his 21 books, translated into 17 languages, had sold more than 20 million copies.
Mr. Courtenay, who was born in Johannesburg, first worked in a copper mine to earn money to study journalism in London, where he met an Australian woman, Benita Solomon; he followed her to Sydney in 1958, and they married.
He never became a journalist, but stumbled into advertising and became a successful creative director, though the stress of his profession, he said, caused him to drink several bottles of wine a day and smoke several packs of cigarettes.
In his 40s he gave up both smoking and drinking and took up running. And in his early 50s he began to write fiction.