Omar Musa, Here Come the Dogs (Hamish Hamilton 2014)
At the last meeting: Someone said he wanted us to choose a book that would blow our minds. By the usual apparently random process, we picked Here Come the Dogs. Would it provide the desired explosion?
Before this meeting: The novel follows the lives of three men in their 20s who live in the Town, which is a bus ride away from the City – as Queanbeyan is from Canberra. Solomon and Jimmy are half brothers. Solomon is Samoan, a former basketball player whose career and university scholarship were cut short by injury. Jimmy, whose ‘eyes cut left to right, / paranoid and grim’ – well, his father was a bit of a fabulist, and no one knowns the truth of his ethnicity.Macedonian-born Aleks, their friend and neighbour since childhood, has connections with organised crime. The friends live in hip-hop culture, tagging and rapping, tending their tattoos, ingesting a range of mood-altering substances, fighting when need or impulse calls for it.
A character describes Solomon as bilingual because he can talk to university students in their own language (‘I guess I have to check my privilege. My bad.’). By that token, Omar Musa is multilingual. The novel’s back-and-forth movement from verse to prose is only part of the rich variation in the language: street argot, delicate descriptive prose, fine dramatic scenes, an occasional voice from the mainstream – all are there without any apparent strain. I’ll leave it to someone else to comment on the accuracy of hip-hop language and references – of the hundreds of names dropped I recognised maybe three. But Musa evokes the milieu with tremendous energy. Likewise the tagging/bombing references: it’s something of a miracle that, without any obvious signposting, an outsider like me is rarely left wondering what they mean.
The first chapter, which is laid out as verse, introduces the three main characters. They’re on a night out, as ‘the only ethnics at the dog races’ and then wandering, partying, getting into fights, and one of them into a sexual encounter. It’s smoke-filled, drug-inflected, and definitely not to be read aloud in a vicarage, but it works beautifully as a sequence of poems. The form allows moments like this, a one line poem and its title:
Wish we had a white person with us
Ten empty cabs have passed us by
In the morning-after prose that begins the second chapter, there’s an abrupt change of tone as we find Aleks meticulously cleaning his kitchen and getting his little daughter ready for school. The book keeps on springing similar surprises: just as you expect one thing, it gives you another. An act of criminal violence is performed with genuine compassion; a relationship that looks set to be central to the plot ends with some blunt name-calling; what looks like a major catastrophe turns out to be just another incident in a character’s near-chaotic life; a prison sequence is convincingly real while standing prison-story conventions on their heads; moral choices faced by the characters are deeply complex.
I loved the book. It has a lot in common with fiction that’s been coming from Western Sydney lately, evoking the knockabout world of marginalised people who struggle to live with integrity. And like that other fiction, it burns with passion for that world.
The meeting: It was a big turn-up for lasagna and cheesecake. Everyone had read the book, an almost unprecedented occurrence, and though some were keener than others, we had all enjoyed it. Some found it hard to get past the swagger of the opening chapter. Some found the ending unsatisfactory – partly because there is no real climax, and partly because of a manufactured feel to what climax there is. (I didn’t see either of these as problems.)
One chap said that as novels are mostly read by middle class people, it’s possible to read a lot of this one as intended to challenge middle-class readers. The C-bomb that’s the fourth word of the first chapter is a message in code: You’re not in polite politically-correct land any more. On the other hand, while agreeing that the lives of these characters was very different from our mostly comfortable, educated and secure lives, I think we mostly felt that as readers we weren’t observing them as examples, but finding a lot to identify with.
This led to an interesting discussion about young men and violence – we compared stories of teenage years in suburban London, small-town New South Wales, suburban Sydney. The book’s arson episode drew out arson-related memories. In one episode a character drives his car with his eyes shut, guided only by a voice that may be on his phone or perhaps is just in his head: is it magical realism, or was the young man just very lucky? Someone confessed to once driving with his eyes shut when young, just to see what it would be like to be blind. Like the character, he opened his eyes not far from disaster.
And of course, the conversation ranged: James Turrell in Canberra, Marina Abramovic’s coming visit to Sydney, the merits of the GP that a number of us go to, things we learn from our children, travel tales, movies, theatre …