Luke Carman, An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo 2014)
Published at the same time as Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe, in a similar format (they are both Giramondo Shorts), and with a similar voice-from-Western-Sydney cover blurb, this book cries out to be read alongside that one. Both books comprise interlinked stories with a single narrator. Carman has shared the stage with Ahmad at a number of readings in Bankstown and elsewhere over the years, and his name has cropped up on this blog a fair bit, often alongside Ahmad’s. Both of them write fiction that feels as if it’s at one small remove from autobiography. They are, however, very different writers.
First, a trigger warning: if you’re sensitive to what the record companies call explicit language, you’d better give this book a miss. If you’re fine with the C word, but don’t want to have a vile image of sexual debasement served up to your inner eye, definitely skip pages 10 and 11, in which the narrator tells of an early encounter with pornography.
Quite apart from that, much of this book isn’t for the faint-hearted. The dominant theme is multiculturalism as it’s lived by working-class teenagers in western Sydney: plenty of violence, racist and sexist verbal abuse, drugs and desperation. In his performances of these stories, Carman has an oddly dissociated, almost robotic manner, with no attempt to mimic the natural rhythms of speech, or indeed of language. It’s as if we’re hearing a meticulously observed report from the point of view of a visitor from another plane – or even another planet: no judgement, no analysis, no emotive suggestions. I don’t think the stories work quite the same way on the page, but there are elements of it: after the description of porn I mentioned earlier, the narrator comments inscrutably, ‘In some ways, life was better before the Internet,’ and moves on with the story. When the narrator (named Luke, and with a number of verifiable things in common with the author) gets onto a fight with a Cronulla punk named Pivot, it goes like this:
…my head started erupting over and over with blows to my face before I realised I was in a fight. By the time I’d understood, I’d thrown a punch of my own. It hit nothing. I watched it miss and so did Pivot, delighted. The two security guards came out from the McDonald’s to cheer us on. One turned to the other and said, ‘It’s like Rocky V!’ The other guard laughed and my second punch connected so hard that I panicked. The first I knew about throwing it was the sound Pivot’s head made cracking against my fist. He toppled and clonked crown first against the concrete. I bent to my knees and put my knuckles against his forehead. Not punching. Just grinding them into him, saying things that didn’t make sense. Somebody grabbed me by the shoulders and yanked me away, saying ‘Oi! Don’t do that mate, it’s over!’ The crowd dispersed in an instant. The security headed back into Maccas and the sound of the clubs and bars came back to me. Tall bronzed meat-heads carrying cans of Woodstock in their hands helped Pivot to his feet and one in a Bundaberg jersey said ‘Better luck next time, Pivo, you weapon!’
About halfway through the book, the narrator leaves the western suburbs and moves to the inner west, where he listens to young men talk ‘in their lilting tones as if no shadow in the coming night would trip them up’. He and another ‘Westie come good’ (I did warn you about offensive language) go to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and ask offensive questions. They get Christopher Hitchens to inscribe a copy of God Is Not Great, ‘You’re the man now dog.’ In one of the book’s many funny scenes, a lightly fictionalised Penguin Plays Rough event in Sydney Park is disrupted by an Aboriginal homeless man:
‘Be gone! The lot of you! This is my home!’ And no one knew what to do, not just because he had a big stick and was wild and homeless and drunk but because he was Aboriginal and we were all white and so if somebody wanted to say, ‘This is public space, we have a right to be here!’ he could very easily say, ‘No you don’t!’
Be reassured, the situation is resolved peacefully.
Perhaps the most striking moment comes at the end of one of the shortest stories, ‘I Heart Henry Rollins’. The narrator sees the planes fly into the World Trade Center on TV. He wakes his mother and tells her America is being attacked. ‘That’s no good,’ she says, and goes back to sleep. [That’s the closest thing I’ve read to what happened in our house that night.] Then he arrives at school the next morning to find scenes of great rejoicing. The principal makes a perfunctory attempt to stop it, and the narrator is uncomprehending. His maths teacher is standing close by:
I asked him, ‘Why is everyone with the terror?’
He scowled, then he grunted an ugly laugh. He was missing a tooth.
He said, ‘When people die in other countries are you so concerned?’
I did not know what to say. I still don’t. Johnny the Serb had overheard us, and he said, ‘Exactly sir, exactly!’ and I wanted to go home … I sensed a great phantom of history was awake and visible for the first time, shadowing my town, looming over the Western Suburbs like an oncoming colossus …
The clouded sun looked like a blood clot. No one was really afraid.
That’s the end of the story. I don’t know about the colossus, which sounds like hindsight, but the schadenfreudeof those semi-alienated young people and their teachers, which has nothing to do with being ‘with the terror’, rings true. To describe it so bluntly comes close to breaking a taboo. The same can be said for the rawness of much of the book. It comes as a breath of fresh air, not as in sweet-smelling, but as in from a new place.
A final note: Like its back cover blurb, I’ve emphasised the book’s report-from-Western-Sydney qualities. I should mention that the narrator is also bookish. He reads Whitman. A poem by Viennese flâneur Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) is a key element of ‘West Suburbia Boys’. Patrick White, Frank Moorhouse, Peter Skrzynecki and other Australian writers ate brief mentions, not necessarily honourable. In ‘Rare Birds’ he sets out to undo the harm he did by enthusing a woman friend about Kerouac and ruining her life.