Collections of short, intertwined stories are a distinct pleasure, offering a peculiar freedom from a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, at the same time as they take us gradually deeper into a specific fictional world. There is a deft balance in Luke Carman’s debut collection An Elegant Young Man between the form of the short story and the weaving of an extended narrative. It would be easy enough to assume that this collection was written as one integrated piece, given how well it works as one.
It is nothing new to address one’s ponderings aloud to the ghost of Walt Whitman – Allen Ginsberg did it in ‘A Supermarket in California’. But the echoes and implications are somewhat different in Liverpool in Western Sydney than they are on the streets of San Francisco. Carman name checks Ginsberg in the opening pages of An Elegant Young Man’s first story, ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’:
I found someone the other day. It was Walt Whitman. Under a broken cabinet outside the Whitlam centre. The Whitlam Centre is a place in Liverpool where they have swimming pools and boxing rings. It’s sort of a big deal. Anyway there was the complete works of Walt Whitman just lying there. It wasn’t the first time I’d come across him. He was in an Allen Ginsberg poem I read once. It was a poem about finding Walt Whitman in a supermarket. I liked the idea. I still like it. I took Whitman around Liverpool with me for a bit.
At first glance, the reference to Whitman appears to be a reiteration of Ginsberg’s surreal vision of the ‘childless, lonely old grubber’ as a ghost. Yet in a series of short sentences, one tumbling upon the other, the image becomes steadily more peculiar. It is not until halfway through the paragraph that Carman assures that his Whitman is, in fact, a collected works, abandoned and incongruous in this place of recreation. On top of Carman’s obvious word play with the names of these two formidable men, Whitman and Whitlam – one a defining voice of American poetry, the other a defining figure in Australian politics – is his play on the motif of displacement. Whitman, displaced here to the leisure centre of Liverpool, was emphatically a poet of the American landscape, the kind of national bard it is all but impossible to separate from his geographical setting. Carman also knows Whitman through the poems of Allen Ginsberg, an East Coast Beat who became near synonymous with the West Coast Beats, a poet displaced from the American mainstream who became a voice of the counter-culture. This sense of being at a cultural remove from one’s influences is a theme which arises again and again in An Elegant Young Man, as a source both of alienation and (hopefully, eventually) inspiration.
The decision to write in a semi-autobiographical style raises inevitable questions. Is this fiction or autobiography? To what degree can we speak of the narrator ‘Luke Carman’ as a ‘character’ in the author Luke Carman’s collection of vignettes? In An Elegant Young Man, Carman navigates the perils of this chosen technique neatly, avoiding the clever-clever tone of Martin Amis and the explicit meta-fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer. There is, instead, a playful and deliberate movement back and forth between statement and contradiction, biography and fiction, making the ground decidedly shaky for a reader trying to pin down precisely who this elegant young man is, and where the line between author and narrator can be drawn.
The jerky, rapid-fire, near incantatory style of the first story establishes an idiosyncratic tone for the collection, introducing us to our narrator with an exhilarating energy:
My name is Luke Francis Carman. Don’t call me Mr Carman – that’s my mother’s name (for me). When sorting out the mail.
The prose is littered with rhetorical questions and frequent zigzags off the path of the (apparent) subject at hand. To my mind, the collection settles into its own in the following pieces, when this jumpiness subsides just a little, when there is a less frequent and more judicious use of the staccato rhythms, allowing a slightly more lyrical, contemplative voice to develop.
The combination of sharp detail, occasionally shocking humour, fluid prose and an insistent pace is evident in the collection’s second story, ‘In Granville’. Colloquialisms and racist banter abound. Passages of description that are in one moment unapologetically vulgar in the next become unexpectedly lyrical. A picture of the physical and cultural landscape begins to take shape. Carman’s Western Sydney is peopled by the neatly put-together Italian newsagent, Luke’s infinitely more dishevelled father, his elderly Egyptian friend Nader, and the family of ‘Lebbos’ next door. He possesses the ability to convey a great deal in very few words, painting a vivid streetscape in a sentence or two, or conjuring up the sight, sound and smell of a person in a carefully chosen turn of phrase.
The chaotic, acid-edged comedy of family life in An Elegant Young Man is punctuated by flashes of violence – Luke’s dad getting ‘bashed at Livo station’, the grunts and moans of black-clothed figures fighting on the side of a suburban street late at night – which Carman folds into successive scenes without theatrics. These unexpected and chilling moments of brutality, do not, for the most part, seem designed to shock – something which cannot always be said of those literary and cinematic texts which depict communities on the economic and cultural margins of mainstream Australian society. Carman maintains the balance between the pathos (the word Luke’s Dad uses to describe his young son’s dramatic performances: ‘Not bad – sentimental at times, full of pathos, but not bad’) and the banality of the everyday.
Something I found harder to absorb was the explicitly reductive images of women in some of these stories. They are their bodies, ‘bulging’ with ‘big rolling fleshiness’, their breasts distracting and ‘intrusive’. Then I began to appreciate that these bodies are depicted as an unknown territory, observed from an adolescent perspective of withdrawal and alienation, from the perspective of a desire that thrums with an undercurrent of squeamishness. Here the distance of the author Carman from the character ‘Luke’ balances the descriptive immediacy of the writing and the narrator’s capacity for wry self-reflection. Women are overwhelming and near-disturbing to Luke precisely because he cannot get near them; his self-deprecation is couched in the rich ironies of hindsight.
One of the longest stories in the collection, ‘217o’, is also one of the strongest. In this and the two other long stories, ‘Rare Birds’ and ‘West Suburbia Boys’, Carman takes his time, spinning out the web of impressions and interactions with graceful segues between images and scenes. On a trip from Liverpool to the beach at Cronulla, Luke and his closest friend Niki walk the night-time streets, which are filled with young, drunk and dressed-up locals:
The promenade was packed with young Aussie men in black Tarocash shirts opened at the chest, and collars turned up around muscled necks. The smell of their sweat and aftershave and the product in their hair that gave them all spikes pushed out at the girls who gave soft-cheeked smiles and eyeliner glances.
Carman here and there throws up images of such clarity that one pauses for a moment, caught, as on these ‘eyeliner glances’, which provide a vivid glimpse of shadowed eyes in the glare of street and shop lights. On another restless night, Luke and Niki drive to visit her on-again, off-again boyfriend and future fiancé Hadie, who is jacked up on drugs and spoiling for a fight. The unit block on Goulburn Street is huge and unwelcoming, its security doors splintered with cracks in the glass. In the inner corridor, the two adolescents wait for the lift to take them up to an abusive man who does not want to see them.
She hit the round ‘up’ arrow with furious jabs and through the windows of the hall the world outside looked like a strange vivarium of orange lights and fern-frond silhouettes.
It is description that catches the internal eye; these silhouettes, the sparse flora outside the imposing apartment block, are transformed momentarily into an object of contemplation.
‘West Suburbia Boys’ opens with a lesson for the reader – by way of Luke’s street-savvy Serbian friend Nick – in the permutations of Western Sydney gang identification.
How he ever came across these facts was yet another mystery to me. They weren’t in the papers or on the television. Not exactly.
Luke is at least partly alienated from his own stomping ground by virtue of his detachment from these allegiances. He is smart enough to observe on at least one occasion that, without the presence of particular friends on his late night wanderings, he would be an inevitable target. He finds friendship and amusement (it’s hardly solace) in amateur WWF-style wrestling, the staged strikes and tumbles of a theatrical blood sport. Empty warehouses and near-desolate car-parks are the sites of confected triumphs and defeats, until the perverse comedy becomes too much and Luke returns home to Liverpool and books and solitary drunkenness.
It is in this longer story that Luke befriends a fellow west-suburbia boy turned inner-westie (by this point, he is living in the now distinctly fashionable Summer Hill), and together the two young men compare literary antecedents – their hatred of Nabokov, their fetish for Bukowski. They follow their admiration for Christopher Hitchens to a moment of something not unlike schadenfreude, catching sight of their hero eating alone at the Sydney Writers’ Festival as strands of his comb-over slip into his soup.
In hindsight I can see that we only read writers who were men and made fools of themselves, and if they died as sorry as they lived, like the manic Berryman leaping off his bridge, then all the better for us.
There is a sincerity here that is both undercut and beautifully underlined by the dawning recognition of youth’s not unpredictable tastes. Is there a single male adolescent reader or aspiring writer who does notwant to be Bukowski, or Kerouac, or Dylan Thomas? An alternative role model – equally distant geographically – is Henry Rollins, the eponymous hero of the collection’s sixth piece, a short vignette entitled ‘I Heart Henry Rollins’. Watching the whoops and cheers of his schoolmates as they celebrate the comeuppance of a superpower on September 12, 2001, Luke suspects that Henry would know what to do:
My maths teacher, Mr Wozniakj, stood close by, with his hairy arms folded and his face tense and proud. 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, to the Internet, to Henry. 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.
Who can teach Luke how to understand his own country? If not Kerouac, setting out to trace the routes of another nation’s heartland, then why Rollins? Where is Luke’s allegiance in the cheering mass of ‘Fobs, Lebbos, Greek, Serbs, Grubby Boys and Aussies’ celebrating this strike against the country from which his own key influences hail? Here is a specifically Australian – indeed a specifically Western Sydney – landscape, a specific imaginary, sharing specific cultural codes and taboos.
In the story from which the collection takes its name – ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’ – we have our first glimpse of the narrator outside the setting of Western Sydney. As the story opens, he is visiting Sappho’s bookshop in Glebe. He goes there every now and again with Tom, initially referred to as his ‘imaginary friend’, whose photo he likes to take when they visit the bookstore café. Is Tom’s friendship imaginary if Tom himself is not? He is undoubtedly present when he drives Luke out to a Leonard Cohen gig in Bowral where the ageless ladies’ man’s words and Luke’s failure to achieve true drunkenness induces a wave of crushing self-loathing and shame. Tom, he understands, has seen him now, seen how ‘hideous’ he is, and it is inevitable the friendship (which in these final pages has shed the descriptor ‘imaginary’) must come to an end.
These alternately slim and substantial stories, despite their geographical focus on the suburbs of Western Sydney, stretch up to Newcastle (the site of Luke’s final wannabe-WWF outing), across the outback on an ill-fated road trip, and on to the streets of Enmore and Newtown. It is back in Penrith, however, that the penultimate ‘Rare Birds’ is set. It contains my favourite opening paragraph:
Before he had a stroke, before he went bald and died, Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation starving naked hysterical. I didn’t see that exactly. I wandered around Penrith Plaza eating kebabs and reading On the Road and calling the world an ecstatic masterpiece until I learned that the world moves from order to disorder just like black holes and middle-class families.
This is a wonderful combination of youthful swallow-the-Beat-poet-Kool-Aid, suburban boredom, and astute black comedy. It is in ‘Rare Birds’ that the adult Luke recovers from the effects of the Kool-Aid, so to speak, and yearns for a literary kindred spirit closer to home:
All Kerouac ever did was teach boys that drinking wine and tapping keys is poetry-making and it shits me to tears because you don’t realise that Australia, the country you’re supposed to be from, doesn’t have any-damn-thing to do with Kerouac …
It is worth contemplating the disjunct between literary influence and geographical (and cultural) location here. Is it the consequence of a genuine dearth of local influences, or merely a tendency for Australians to look beyond what they perceive to be the inadequacy of their own literary inheritance? It is a tendency I do not attribute to Carman, of course, but we might perhaps perceive it in the teenaged Luke. The theme is woven through this collection in the simultaneous attraction to and disillusionment with international voices. Luke is seduced by the voices of specifically American experiences of adolescence, urban sprawl, disaffection and artistic aspiration. But these voices do not and cannot speak of Australia, as he observes more than once. Within the confines of these stories there is no attempt to conjure an Australian counterpart to the spectre of Kerouac’s or Bukowski’s influence, either to deride or celebrate.
In ‘Rare Birds’, Luke joins his inner-city living, North Shore-born friend Nell at an outdoor poetry reading in Sydney Park, following the defeat of Nell’s home-grown poetry evening by angry neighbours. As they prepare to begin, they are interrupted by the objections of a homeless Aboriginal man who is living under the brickworks which form their makeshift stage:
The bum leant down and grabbed a huge stick from a patch of long grass near the tongue-shaped chair, held it over his head like a conjuror’s staff and bellowed, ‘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!’
Nell looked defeated and shaken. I wondered if she was thinking how unfair the world is for a woman from the North Shore who believes in poetry and wants to get up on a stage and not be pressed and flattened into a fixture or a faucet of someone else’s machine, and y’know I would have cried for her. I really would have cried but because of my working class background I just get angry when things are complex.
It is a wonderfully layered scene, the targets of its black humour multiple and shifting. A well-meaning middle-class girl silenced by the collision of poetry with political correctness; the spectre of political correctness itself, making rebuttal impossible; the very concept of ‘public space’ called into question by the illegitimacy of private land ownership; and finally the stereotype of working class aggression, simultaneously employed and satirised.
The publicity for An Elegant Young Man emphasises its importance as a missive from the unexplored territory of Western Sydney, a ‘frontier’ which has yet to be confronted or embraced either culturally or politically. While we are being treated to an ever-growing ensemble of talent emerging from the area – Felicity Castagna’s young adult novel The Incredible Here and Now (2013), also published by Giramondo, is a standout example – as yet we are not seeing anything like a breadth of representation proportionate to the sheer size and diversity of Western Sydney as a city in its own right. It is a part of Sydney, and of Australia, whose appearance on our screen or in our newspapers correlates directly to the cycle of wedge politics; it is rarely considered by politicians or mainstream media between elections.
I wondered while reading An Elegant Young Man what it would be like to come to a collection like Carman’s without the cues and clues, without the familiarity with his subject. Readers who know this Sydney, or even Australian readers in general, bring with them an expectation of accuracy twinned with something akin to the cultural cringe, which shies away from the explicitness of clear cultural references. On the other hand, there is also the spark of recognition, the humour of a local observation you know to be true. Do residents of the global cities about which we all inevitably read, and may even know well, feel the same uncanny and uncomfortable thrill as a Western Sydneysider reading about Penrith Plaza (a frequent destination in my own high school years)? Is there something about this Australia – its under-written quality, our own immersion in other cultures, even while we reside here – which makes it both more and less familiar? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is an exciting and important task for young Australian writers like Carman to contribute to and develop the literary chorus of voices from those under-written places, to make them more ‘familiar’ – whatever that might mean – both nationally and internationally. It is, after all, as Luke says, ‘the country [we are] supposed to be from’.
Allen Ginsberg, ‘A Supermarket in California,’ Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (Penguin Modern Classics, 2009).