I stumbled across Peter Polites Down The Hume in an article published in (I think*) The Guardian discussing the new wave of Australian noir. Because I’ve always been interested in noir and because I was neck-deep in the sub-genre during January / February for a forthcoming episode of Shooting the Poo I decided to give this new generation of Aussie noir a fair dinkum chance with Peter Polites début novel as my go to book.
Set in Western Sydney, Polites introduces us to Bux a gay man and second generation Greek who is addicted to pain medication, namely a drug called Syrinapx**. Working as a nurse in an old age home Bux’s favourite patient is Bruno, an Italian man, who Bux suspects to be gay. Bux’s main squeeze is No Arms Pete, a muscle-man who gets his rocks off from choking and punching Bux while they’re fooling around (To be fair, I didn’t get the impression that Bux had a problem with this). Possibly as a result of the opiates or an unhappy family life – Bux’s father barely recognises his son’s existence – Bux’s paranoia and obsession with his violent boyfriend slowly, but inevitably spin out of control.
There’s allot to like about this novel, especially in how it presents gay culture, the West of Sydney and what it is to be the son of migrants, especially when you also happen to be gay. I appreciated the smattering of Greek throughout the novel, *** often without translation (Marvin has a helpful link to Google Translate, an ebook reader I can heartily recommend). It’s also illustrative of the two worlds that Bux is struggling to come to terms with, his needs and desire as a gay man and the expectation that he settle down with a nice Greek girl.
Typical of good noir, the novel really sings when it describes Bux’s landscape. While I’ve never visited Sydney’s west, Polites evocative descriptions of this inner-suburban setting neatly overlays on places I frequent in Melbourne, whether it be Fitzroy or Carlton or Richmond. For example, Polites almost heart-felt tour through Belmore could easily apply to Brunswick in Melbourne:
My Belmore had three or four takeaway food places. Some sold chicken and chips, those corner-shop hamburgers where they grilled the bread, a kebab shop with a sugary chilli sauce. Chinese. Greeks. Turks. Freshies, broken English shop owners who’d change the prices on you depending on their mood. My Belmore had gambling dens. Places that pretended to be coffee shops. First-wave Greek immigrants ran them. They were above the shops on the main drag. A narrow carpeted staircase up to a room with some tables in it. A gas stove for the briki. Packets of sunflower seeds, walnuts and almonds on plates. Posters of eighties pinups with thick blonde perms, high-cut leotards. Scrunched-up leg warmers against oiled limbs. Legs and arms slimy with an orange tan. The old men inside were slimy too, a different kind of shine. One that sweated too much. Greasy thick foreheads. Smoke floating around Brylcreem and fisherman’s caps.
That’s not to say that Polites setting is a cookie-cutter rendition, but that Bux’s sharp and keen insights of the world he inhabits resonate because they are familiar.
Where the novel is less successful is in its tone of voice. As an Aussie I can appreciate some ocker in my fiction, but Bux – and Polites – take things about eighty steps too far. Maybe it’s cultural cringe on my part, maybe if I was more in tune with my own lingo I’d be more accepting, and maybe I should be thankful that Polites is willing to embrace language in a manner that distinguishes the book from traditional literary noir… but there are times when it all gets a bit indulgent. You can make up your own mind:
I used to work on the pokies. Deros and reffos would put a dollar in the Emerald Oriental Bride machine. Ask for free Pepsi and coffees. I’d never talk, only fake smile and ask them, ‘What can I get for you?’
We had homos come in sometimes. Around Christmas and New Year’s, the poofs who came good came home. They wore thin blue polos tucked into tight beige chino shorts with braided patent belts so shiny you’d think the leather was sweating. Their families dared them to drink VB. They came to the bar heroically.
While Polites nails that aspect of noir that focuses on setting and sense of place, he’s less adept in regard to plotting and pacing. To be fair Bux’s self-destructive qualities, another important aspect of literary noir, are there in abundance. But so much of the noirish bits happen off-screen that it’s hard to view Bux as a victim of a con perpetrated by his boyfriend. In fact, with all the stalking and spying Bux commits in regard to No-Arms Pete you’d think he’d have figured out what was actually going on and how it linked back to the man Bux is caring for, that is Bruno and his wealthy estate.
Still there’s more than enough to like here that I’ll certainly be looking our for more work by Peter Polites, noirish or otherwise.
* It’s possible I imagined this article because I can find it on the interwebs.
** Drug does not exist in the real world according to my pharmacist wife.
*** Even if the Greek is poorly written (according to comments on my Facebook page).