So Close to Home
The man who wants to pay Aaron, an 18-year-old heroin addict, for sex, is known simply as “The Man”. He is closer to 70 than 60, has black hair, tailored suits and an expensive car. “Everything about him says money, real money and opportunity” – or so thinks the teen who accepts the deal, against the grain of every hope and want aside from his need for drugs and the glorious, temporary extinction they provide.
So Close to Home – with its titular nod to the Paul Kelly album So Much Water So Close to Home, and before that to the Raymond Carver story of the same name – is concerned with addiction as a way of life. The novel’s author, Mick Cummins, is a social worker. Much early admiration for and interest in the manuscript arose from its air of hard-edged authenticity. In February it won best unpublished manuscript at the 2023 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
And it is fair to say that Cummins brings an anthropological rigour to Aaron’s situation. At home the young man is thoughtful and sensitive, a talented musician who simply wants to meet a girl and make a life for himself. At work, however – that is, being a homeless addict – he is a ruthlessly strategic sole contractor in a sellers’ market.
The best parts of So Close to Home emerge when the author allows this world to unfold according to its own amoral logic. Cummins’ depiction of Melbourne’s druggy demimonde has a documentary clarity and even a tenuous esprit de corps. Yet the other half of the novel is concerned with the drama of power relations that arises from Aaron’s relationship with The Man – a story we are more familiar with in heterosexual contexts, from Nabokov’s Lolita to Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”.
Here the decency demanded of those in caring professions rubs petroleum jelly across the clear lens of the artist’s eye. Cummins insists too much on Aaron’s politesse – a young man who robs his own mother yet describes Indigenous Australians with appropriate nicety of nomenclature and takes time out from hunting drugs to be inspired by a local artist who is paralysed.
Conversely, the author allows nothing to complicate the sinister, unreflective vileness of The Man who preys upon Aaron: a boy who, we learn, has a traumatic history with older men. By the time their relationship reaches its violent climacteric, the novel has surrendered any fruitful ambivalence. So Close to Home is a novel that refuses the chance to be as radical in unfolding as the material from which it is made.
Affirm Press, 304pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "So Close to Home".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Purchase this book
So Close to HomeBUY NOW
When you purchase a book through this link, Schwartz Media earns a commission. This commission does not influence our criticism, which is entirely independent.