Book review: Down the Hume

Down the Hume by Peter Polites
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

This is not a fun read. The novel, I mean. This review may be a fun read depending on how low your humour threshold is, but the novel definitely isn’t, in much the same way that Christos Tsiolkas’ The Jesus Man isn’t. That book sent me into a weeks-long depression after reading it, because I’d spent so much time in the company of thoroughly unlikeable characters. Same thing here.

The characters in Peter Polites’ debut are thoroughly unlikeable. (Except for the mother figure who earns pin money from predictions: she’s awesome in a terrible-kneed kind of way.) But the bulk of the people covered here, from Nice Arms Pete to his pliant narrator fucktoy Bux, are not nice.

That’s kind of the point, though, as this is a novel that speaks of a Sydney that you won’t see on a postcard, unless some hipster starts ironically flogging Westfields Of The West memento snaps, in that whole “I Climbed Mt Druitt” way. It’s a novel about the west of Sydney, and speaks to and about the non-Anglo population, usually an afterthought in still mostly-white Australia. Throw in addiction, shitty jobs, domestic violence and the vicissitudes of both being gay and being “ethnic” in the wider world, and you’ve got something a long way from white sails and Hoges chucking one on the barbie for you.

There is dignity in doing a shit job well.

I mentioned Tsiolkas in the opening lines here because that’s who – lazily, really – I’ve seen Polites compared to. True, that author’s Loaded (filmed as Head On) is the book usually mentioned as it too discusses gay life, Greek life and drugs. But I feel that the two authors are linked less by their subject matter and more by their desire to accurately plumb awfulness in a way that creates discomfort in the reader, but not to the point of giving up entirely. No matter how bad stuff got in here, I didn’t feel like chucking in the towel. Think of it like a Gaspar Noe film you read: you know there’s a lot of bad shit going on in here, but turning away is more difficult than pushing on.

Not that it’s a slog. Far from it. I admit, perhaps tourism fuelled my interest, but I found I got through this book pretty quickly: the kinetic energy of the piece is enormous. Violence forms a large part of the proceedings, even if not being specifically enacted. There’s the seeming calm – and coercive control – of drugs. Place names skip by with the expectation that the reader will know them (or know of them) and keep up. Greek elbows its way into the text, both in terms of the quirks of an old Greek’s adoption of English (some of these fuckers can swear) and the language itself, keeping the reader on their toes.

As their eyes cloud with cataracts they sing in unison from their nursing home beds: Εχουμε γεραση στην ξενιτία. We have become old in a foreign land. But there are enough people like me here that have the same flags in common.

(I’m just a skip, but I found Google Translate’s photo mode a great help here. If nothing else, I’ve learned to be more profane on an international level.)

I must admit, I have a lot of time for this book because it speaks about places near where I used to live. As an ex-Sydneysider, it was an excellent, non-rosy reminder of places I’d been and things I’ve seen. It creates a more compelling portrait, for me, of the place than the sort of things Tourism NSW would like to show you, but I suppose that’s more the result of my spending years in a shitty flat in Canterbury than it is anything else.

A group of hipsters was walking down the footpath towards me. As they passed each shop they looked in. Anthropologist gaze over κουραβιέδες in the zαχορόπλαστιο. Looked in at the Chinese couple running the newsagency. Examined young Greeks drinking Nescafé frappés. The hipsters wore high-waisted jeans. Distressed denim. Washed and faded collared shirts, buttons done all the way up. Their clothes made me realise that being a hipster meant paying a lot to look poor.

The book could be filed next to your noir tomes pretty easily. There’s not dames in big hats (dudes in devil-red Commodores will have to suffice) but that same grimness of spirit, that tendency towards the easy way, is present here. The story is destined to go down, as stories of addiction often do, though the author leavens the slide with some wistful looks into other characters’ pasts.

I don’t think the writer is quite as successful in sticking the landing as he might’ve been, but the portraiture on display is enthralling enough to paper over any narrative flaws.

I really look forward to reading more of Peter Polites’ work. I’ll need a bit of a breather after this, but I expect the evisceration to continue.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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