Marketed as a hybrid of Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded and Luke Davies’ Candy, Peter Polites’ Down the Hume is the story of a gay Greek man known as Bux, who finds himself in a masochistic relationship with an Aussie drug dealer called Nice Arms Pete and who soon becomes addicted to painkillers.
The first-person style is edgy and colloquial, with the action narrated in shorthand – “Started my next set of tasks. Went to supply room.” – and characters conversing in SMS – “wtf”, “atm”. Polites is an associate director of Sweatshop, an activist drama group based in Western Sydney, and he has clearly attempted to capture the vernacular of that part of Australia.
One might call the style anti-literary, if not for the fact that the book also plays with the literary genre of noir. There’s no detective, but Nice Arms Pete functions as the “homme fatale”, and Bux ends up being naively ensnared in a criminal plot. As an instance of queer noir, Polites’ novel is well served by a comparison with Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, which similarly queers noir conventions while also aiming for a dynamic, anti-establishment voice.
However, Down the Hume is most valuable as a raw depiction of the working-class migrant landscapes of Western Sydney, and of an alternatively ignored, airbrushed or maligned vision of Australianness. We meet Greek women who have spent 20 years in Australia but whose English is “still limited to ‘hello’ and ‘no’ ”. We learn how the local club, converted into a “pokieverse”, has been taken over by “Lebs, wogs and reffos”. Some “old-school” Aussies or “skips” still linger, but they are mostly “Ex local football stars who had resigned themselves to the three D’s. Diabetes, divorces and drunkenness.” There is graffiti scrawled on a dusty car: Wogs Rule, Aussies Drool. If not portrayed as pathetic and irrelevant, the Aussies in the novel tend to be corrupt or untrustworthy, as we see with Nice Arms Pete and Bux’s other love interest, the Doc. At one point Bux buys an aba from an Islamic men’s clothes store so that he can spy on the increasingly cagey and suspect Pete.
Polites’ novel ultimately offers a riotous vision of an authentically multicultural Australia that One Nation – and increasingly the far right of the LNP – cannot accept. This makes Down the Hume essential reading in these times of “border protection”. KN
Hachette, 352pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2017 as "Peter Polites, Down the Hume ".
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