Books

Omar Musa
Here Come the Dogs

If you’ve ever driven inland from an Australian city, you have seen the Town: its war memorials, its Charcoal Chicken joints, its TABs, its red-brick pubs. Omar Musa’s version is “a powderkeg, / a perfect altar for a bushfire – / the sole god of a combustible summer”. By the end of this novel, which mixes verse and prose, you know it must explode. The only question is: metaphorically or physically, or both?

The Town is a dextrous image. It’s also a maze with a beast at its heart – consider this book its bestiary. Solomon Amosa is 27 and lives at home. He’s a former basketball hopeful who works a dishwashing job, once “lean and fatless”, now carrying a “small but obvious gut”. His half-brother Jimmy calls him a libertine who “lost any sense of discipline to booze, women and MDMA years ago”. Meanwhile, Jimmy himself is mouthing an unsexy, self-helpy mantra while doing the equally unsexy work of applying eye drops: “RelationshipandCommunicationRelationshipandCommunicationRelationshipandCommunication,” he thinks. This and other acts of domestication aren’t taking well. Their friend Aleks, an eastern European, is a young father serving time in jail.

These are the kind of young men who never quite quit smoking, who are ageing past the point where their foibles look like the results of youth. Their story joins a recent flood of top-quality Australian fiction that turns its authors’ angry, funny eyes towards the non-urban quadrants of Australia, a country woefully underequipped to deal with anyone who isn’t rich or white. It pairs well with Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko, or Pat Grant’s graphic novel Blue; like them, Here Come the Dogs both entertains and assaults, filling gaps in a national literature that’s too complacent, and too narrow.

Musa’s book focuses tightly on the trio: “a Samoan, a Maco and a something” (Jimmy’s lineage is unknown). A school teacher once told Aleks “how lucky he was to be here” in contrast with the Balkans, an animalistic place. Even at school age, Aleks knew the teacher was delusional: “Make a nick in the corner of the country, peel back the facade like possum skin, and the truth beneath would be hideous.” Such nicking, peeling and truth-telling is this book’s forensic project, though what it reveals turns out to be equally bleak and bright. A girlfriend tells Solomon his town is not exactly the Australia she’d dreamed of: she’d “wanted red sands and rainforests and highways” and got roundabouts. Solomon can’t fault her indictment, but his hackles also rise: it’s not a very good Australia, but it’s the one he knows. Abandon it or fix it? This becomes the choice the main characters noodle with as the plot kicks along.

Some of the most uncomplicatedly loving stanzas describe Aussie hip-hop. This is clearly a passion of Musa’s – he’s both a slam poet and a rapper – but it also makes perfect sense for his fictional creations. Aussie hip-hop went from mockable genre to middle-class interest quite fast, largely bypassing a moment that was legitimate or cool. It’s a good choice of worship for characters who themselves feel they’ve been left in the dust.

It’s no stretch to create a link between rap and poetry, but it also requires limiting your definitions of both forms. Rap has greater aural potential than poetry, while poetry’s visual and spatial potentials are greater than rap’s. Musa can be good visually, as when he traces a sky’s shift from “wine dark” to “lemon light”. It’s one of those riffs on a cliché that forces you to go back and revisit the overused phrase, turning the tired “wine dark” into something refreshed and stark. But Musa’s text is best when focused on speed, sound and flow. Here’s Solomon, preening:

But I’m crisp tee fresh –

black on black, snapback,

toothbrush on sneaker,

throwback fresh.

Solomon feels sharp here, and thanks to Musa, so do you. He is always good at inducing his characters’ sensations in the reader’s body. When Solomon does a line of coke, it’s “a cold zoom in the guts, / a perfectly timed tackle”. The second metaphor locates the experience in culture and space, of course – but the first enacts a precise and powerful linguistic attack.

Musa has true poetic chops. He is also a fine observer, meticulous about chronicling rarely written aspects of the world. Jimmy, in a club, “can’t quite hit the beat with his hips and knees so he stands still and bobs his head”. It’s a tiny moment, but when have you ever seen this documented in a novel – the exact feeling of engaging with a DJ in a slightly failed way?

It might prove an important book. It’s also very straight and male. This reflects the experiences of Musa’s characters, but that’s hardly a fair defence, when phrases like “lemon light” so clearly belong to an author’s hand, transcending those characters’ world views. When Solomon dumps Georgia, a university girl, the break-up emerges through a torrential verbal assault, about how sleeping with Solomon won’t make Georgia less white. The argument feels strangely one-sided. One scene does feature two women speaking to each other, by themselves – alas, their conversation is very brief, and it’s about the blokes.

By the finale, some expected pay-offs are buried, inadequately explored, perhaps the result of shuffling between voices and styles. In a verse novel, such cleaving can shock the reader, force them to look up. In a book that’s two-thirds prose, it feels like an issue of plot.

But it’s all so quick, you hardly notice. Here Come the Dogs is first and foremost a ride. Debut novels often come with an implicit caveat: this is a writer to watch, someone who brings a fresh voice at the expense of form. Musa is better than that. It’s a big, bad book that promises the world, then burns it all joyously down.  CR

Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Omar Musa, Here Come the Dogs". Subscribe here.