The protagonist of Peter Polites’ debut novel, Down the Hume, has the hardboiled tone of a narrator from literary noir. But rather than a detective anti-hero, with the dark glamour we often attribute to such a figure, this world-weary narrator is a queer, working-class Greek guy from Western Sydney with a painkiller habit. He’s called Bux, ‘some wog fag way out west. Semi drug-addled. Limited money. Housing insecurity’; an ‘everyday loser in a lose-lose situation’. Bux is a wage slave with a pharmaceutical addiction, his otherwise interminable daily grind is punctuated by distress calls from his melancholic mother or unpredictable appearances from his abusive, petty crim boyfriend, ‘Nice Arms Pete.’ That’s as glamorous as it gets.
Literary noir, which emerged from the popular, pulpy hardboiled crime fiction of the 1930s and 40s, is a bitter antidote to tales of individual achievement and the mythos of the American dream. In the classic and now iconic examples of the genre – works by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler and Dorothy B. Hughes; James M. Cain’s very famous The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity – the social world is a brittle and hostile place, indifferent to the plight of the individual. Noir has long been a vehicle for the expression of various modern urban malaise: anxiety and paranoia, victimisation, yearning and melancholia, the atomisation of the individual in the dog-eat-dog, industrial-capitalist machine.
In its classic iterations noir is a space for the expression of the existential pain of white straight men – even if the wily femme fatales were typically the more remarkable characters. They were punished for it though, the women, for when it comes to gender typing and also the representation of ethnic and sexual forms of otherness, noir has a mixed resumé. The genre’s errant women almost uniformly suffer a lethal fortune as penalty for their ambitions. There are of course less punitive treatments with a genus going back to hardboiled strains of 1960s lesbian pulp fiction as well as in revisionist treatments – both novels and films – from more recent decades. The feminist or queer recuperation of the femme fatale and other noir tropes expanded dramatically across a range of national cinemas since the 1990s, and sometimes in surprising places like Dorothy Porter’s lesbian verse noir, The Monkey’s Mask (1994), a queer Australian precursor to Down the Hume also set mostly in Sydney.
In the classic American exemplars of the genre, a scattering of queer and non-white characters appear, typically in wildly stereotyped incarnations. These minor characters are often simply a racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic epithet thrown out thoughtlessly by the hero, partly to highlight his unapologetic coarseness – a defining trait of the hardboiled man. In a 1995 essay in the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates listed the slurs used casually by Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Phillip Marlowe: ‘nigger’, ‘shine’, ‘fag’, ‘queen’, ‘Jewess’, ‘Mex’, ‘greaseback’, ‘wetback’, ‘Jap’ and ‘pansy’; a character in The High Window (1942) is ‘a big burly Jew with a Hitler mustache and pop eyes.’ In Chandler and elsewhere, queer and non-white characters tend to serve as exotic decoration of the gritty urban mise-en-scène, a perverse trimming or a blind alley encountered by the hero as he traversed the noir labyrinth.
In other words, noir has had a fraught relationship with its representation of diversity. In addition to animating anxieties about the changing landscape of gender and class in America, the ramping-up of consumer society and emergent forms of unbridled class aspirationalism, noir in its conventional forms is a genre that dramatises white heterosexual panic.
Down the Hume is interested in how literary and cinematic noir conventions might adapt to and accommodate intersectional Australian identities in neoliberal times. Its author has been quite explicit about this agenda: to insert the noir into contemporary multicultural Western Sydney. As Polites observed in an interview with Kill Your Darlings, Australia is now witnessing a ‘real battle for minorities’ rights… and noir is a great vehicle for minorities because a lot of those lose–lose situations that occur in the narrative structure fit perfectly for people who are from minority backgrounds.’
His debut novel has tested how noir tropes and conventions function when sexual and ethnic difference replaces the white male alienation at the genre’s core. These conventions offer plotting and pacing that produces a propulsive form of storytelling, making it feel immediate and compulsive – desperate like its characters, sensational in spite of its many mundane situations. A clipped prose style that is poetic, vernacular and intensely masculine gives us access to Bux’s hardboiled consciousness, and distinctive noir moods are invoked: yearning, unrestrainable desire, ennui, resignation, petty intrigue, suspicion, paranoia and fear. Down the Hume’s intersectional noir is a uniquely contemporary Australian inhabitation of the genre, foregrounding both hardboiled and literary noir’s street poet sensibilities and its melodrama of the everyday, and overlaying these with elements of a critically queer sensibility and a working-class wog political critique.
This ambitious re-situating of the noir in the ethnically diverse Australian city, with its complicated stratifications of class and ethnicity, raises the question of what the genre can do for these new contexts. Noir has long offered a space for airing working-class grievances, and for smuggling in queer and feminist subtexts. What, then, does noir do for contemporary Western Sydney, and what can it do for the children of migrants and working-class queers in Australia? Can the genre be re-inhabited in ways that self-consciously expose the grim machinations and effects of new types of economic, psychic and social exclusion while delivering, concurrently, the reading pleasures of mystery and melodrama? It is certainly a lot to pull off.
Bux, our anti-hero, has legitimate reasons to feel discontent. He works at a nursing home called Park Road Aged Care and though he feels ‘there is dignity in doing a shit job well’, the heavy lifting is quite literally breaking his back and the residents throw their shit at him, also literally. Bux appreciates that this shit throwing is an assertion of wilfulness and personhood from people who are institutionalised and ignored. They ‘have not resigned, they are still raging’, explains Bruno, a queer Greek resident of the centre with whom Bux has developed an affectionate friendship, and whose story intersects with his in sad and ultimately sinister ways. At other times Bux is so over it that he drops residents violently into their wheelchairs and pushes them too quickly through the corridors, ‘Treat[ing] the least aware residents like I was a removalist clearing a deceased estate. Gripped their ankles as if they were bone on a hunk of butcher’s meat.’ Bux himself is no saint; he’s capable of ‘nursing [his] grievances’ in uncompassionate ways.
When he attempts to share with his supervisor Agatha something of the difficulties of his personal life she replies, ‘I put on a sheet of diamonds when I come to work.’ Park Road Aged Care is broadly emblematic of the experience of the precariat worker in the casualised, local service industry. What Agatha means is that neither she nor their workplace are interested in his problems.
Then there’s Bux’s boyfriend Nice Arms Pete. Nice Arms Pete has ‘alabaster skin’ and a ‘rockmelon arse’, but he’s a liar and a withholder of love and painkillers, both of which Bux is addicted to. They live together in a basic cottage littered with Nice Arms Pete’s gym gear and spilt piles of protein-shake powder. Nice Arms Pete seems to make a living selling steroids but he’s definitely conducting other more clandestine operations. With Nice Arms Pete, Bux lives in a state of distrust and anxiety in which his suspicion that his boyfriend is up to something bad is mixed with fear. Nice Arms Pete is prone to sudden paroxysms of physical aggression. Their relationship treads and trips a thin line between partner abuse and not-quite-consensual BDSM. Bux himself knows that he’s addicted to that too: Nice Arms Pete is ‘an infection in my head.’
As if that weren’t bleak enough, perched in the primal zone of his quotidian pain are Bux’s Greek migrant parents. Baba, the original spouse-beater, has essentially disowned his son for being a poofter. To spend time with his mother Bux must carefully avoid crossing his father’s path, but there is always the explosive risk they will encounter each other. Baba is too old and embittered to gift his wife the relief from domestic terror that leaving her would grant. Bux wonders how ‘my dad, my baba, my one-bit old man could watch so much Dr Phil and still be a cunt.’
As for Mamma, she makes extra money reading tea-leaves for her superstitious friends. She’s otherwise resigned to a broken, melancholy life and gets through by taking the same little blue pills that Bux uses, ‘Syrinapx’, a made-up opiate painkiller that he sometimes steals from her when they’re not being drip-fed to him by Nice Arms Pete. As Bux grimly spells out, mother and son have things in common: ‘Me and my mamma… Both of us have train lines for backyards. Both of us have vanishing men and substances to lean on.’
Poor, wretched Bux. If Australia was the mythological lucky country for post-war Southern European migrants, he’s been bequeathed a pretty paltry inheritance. He does menial work in a brutally uncaring neoliberal service economy; he’s queer in a Sydney with an uneven tolerance of sexual difference delivered across class, ethnic and geographical lines; he’s the heir to his parents’ humiliations, disappointments and toxic gender roles. There are only the most fleeting indications that he has the agency or the optimism to strive for a less painful future. He’s resigned, as is frequently the case with narrators of literary noir, to just putting up with it: ‘Never having a wedding that my parents would dance at. Never having my own child that looked like the sum total of me and my partner.’
Syrinapx is a coping strategy that ‘numb[s] the kinds of pain that a chiropractor couldn’t fix’. Bux’s dependence on prescription drugs is a tactic for surviving life under neoliberalism and heteropatriarchy: the blessed release of the little blue pills. At his most fatalistic Bux sees in his mother a vision of how it all plays out: ‘Your position was just living, living was limited joy, was what I understood from her.’
‘I. Could. Leave.’ Could he drum up the means to escape this life, abandon the emotional squalor of his parent’s relationship, his depressing mother, his shit rental property and deadbeat boyfriend? In almost three hundred pages, only once does the thought occur to him. Escape – from small town to big city, from stifling parochial family to the bustling metropolises of Melbourne or Sydney or bohemian expat life in Europe – often crops up in Australian literature and drama. But for Bux there is no leaving. Work markets, ethnic profiling, tightening restrictions on mobility, addiction and the uneven acceptance of queer sexuality are among the material realities that inhibit fantasies of escape. A particular, melancholic form of parental duty associated with the migrant experience in Australia is part of this adhesion, this stuckness. So Bux remains loyal to the drudgery of day-to-day survival in Western Sydney. His dual fixation with the mysterious comings-and-goings of Nice Arms Pete and where to get his next packet of Syrinapx are early indications that, rather than expand, his world will only contract in both psychic and material ways. This denial of the possibility of escape is drawn straight from noir: there is no escape; you are stuck in the muck.
However, for sticking around Bux doesn’t get nothing. There is Mamma, for one, who offers him home-cooked meals and companionship on the occasional outing. Like Bruno, she has some acerbic observations and entertainingly caustic lines up her sleeve. Their time spent together is a form of mutual care, although its potential for nourishment is diluted by the disappointment and homophobic shame Mamma openly harbours. Mama, in her own way, plays a role in perpetuating the humiliation of Bux’s spoiled masculinity, not to mention the pain of witnessing her own despair.
Another dark reward for sticking around is the frequently withheld pleasure of being Nice Arms Pete’s boyfriend (or ‘fucktoy’). Until, that is, Nice Arms Pete abruptly leaves. Prior to this it’s not entirely clear to Bux what it is that is really so appealing about Nice Arms Pete beyond his fetishised Anglo-Adonis body, the biceps that pop – the skin, ‘alabaster with blue veins that ran down them like rivers.’ The reader is a bit more clued-in. Nice Arms Pete is a Stanley Kowalski-sort of character – a sexy deadbeat, neurotically masculine. He’s a kind of low-rent Bluebeard, a gaslighter. Revealing memories from Bux’s childhood and titbits from his parent’s dynamic offer an aetiology for his submission to Nice Arms Pete: Bux’s father doesn’t accept his son’s queerness and so Bux seeks love from an equally love-withholding man – a daddy complex. Accordingly, his relationship with Nice Arms Pete, this relentlessly masculine figure, is painful; but that pain is counterbalanced by a longing for approval, and, like with Syrinapx, there is both pleasure and relief when it’s delivered. It’s a cliché to observe that among some queer people the experience of parental non-acceptance and the anguished self-loathing that that experience can produce can pave a willing path for potent-seeming but nasty figures like Nice Arms Pete to come in and slap you around. ‘Yeah, cringe-worthy cliché’, Bux says, ‘but what’s really unfortunate is that clichés ring true.’ That’s the basic psychology of the relationship.
This dynamic is delivered with great subtlety. In fact it’s one of the distinct triumphs of Down the Hume that its rendering of the psychological, psychosexual and economic circumstances that keep Bux (and his mother) stuck in dire situations with awful men is delivered so lightly and convincingly; melodramatic, but precise and identifiable.
Nice Arms Pete was happy too so he put his hand around the back of my neck and closed his grip hard. Tensed my back and resisted, but then accepted it. Shut my eyes, mouth opened a little and my face tilted to the ceiling. I took long breaths into the pit of my gut and submitted my body to his version of a hug.
Yearning and self-loathing reconstitute themselves as desire and submission.
The Bux-Nice Arms Pete dynamic is also at the heart of the book’s political critique – its interest in the social dynamics of power and agency. In general, noir isn’t much for the promise of positive change: insight, behaviour modification, social mobility, connecting with community. It’s not that Bux is entirely lacking in the potential for insight or a better life but rather that he is lacking the resources and infrastructure that might enable the kind of agency required to make such life changes. Class, ethnicity and sexuality manifest emotionally and economically. In Bux’s case it is the triumvirate conditions of being gay, Western Sydney-working-class and of migrant stock that together conspire to produce the lack of self-determination that might help him find a different kind of boyfriend.
Bux isn’t a complete rube: he’s aware enough to recognise that there’s pleasure for him in the aggression and attention his lover bestows and withholds in turn, even if ultimately he craves more functional domestic cohabitation. ‘I didn’t want a big fight for gay marriage – all I wanted was a clean house’; that ‘there would be pizza boxes piled in the kitchen and we would watch award-nominated television.’ But this is the thing about the femme or the homme fatale: once they become ‘an infection in [your] head’ you are doomed. Noir trades in predetermined narrative and psychological outcomes – fatalisms – which is partly why we sense from very early on that Bux’s relationship is only going to make his life worse, not better. As per these narrative rules, Nice Arms Pete will play the role of obsessed-over homme fatale in a predestined narrative, the catalyst for a fate more ruinous than the already just-survivable life Bux leads. Genre conventions thus enable Polites to make a point about working class ethnic machismo and the material and psychological effects it can have on subordinated masculinities. Bux senses some of this, but doesn’t quite possess the language to express it: ‘I can’t speak about it because I am limited, am limited, to describing him as something in a picture, floating across our screen on the television and then mirrored in my head, which became a feeling.’ The feeling is all there is, and that feeling is a ‘a fire of want.’
Nice Arms Pete is Anglo-Australian and this important. When Bux pictures him as a child he pictures
A wheat-fed kid and I saw him swimming in billabongs near a farmhouse. Sandy hair, skin still smooth but slightly sun-aged, and you could see clean living on him. The kind of Australian I could never be. In a red coat with a musket pointed at a native.
The colonial metaphor signals a link between the culture of contemporary white gay men’s sexual and economic dominance in the queer world and the complicity of this social pattern in the history of white supremacy in Australia. The intensity of Bux’s desire for Nice Arms Pete is always tinged with an awareness of his own exclusion from the kinds of Aussie male entitlement his skip lover enjoys. It is another strength of Down the Hume and an index of its originality in the small pond of Australian queer fiction that Polites illuminates both the erotics and power dynamics of such mixed-ethnicity relationships. This is a driving concern and doubtlessly a personal one for Polites, as it is (or, as it should be) for all gay men living in the era of ‘no fats, no femmes, no Asians,’ a time when Grindr and other hook-up apps have made white gay male sexual racism (and racialised sexuality more generally) unashamedly transparent.
That the over-determined nature of genre can resemble predictable ideological scripts of racial, national and sexual entitlement is another reason why, for Polites, noir is such a useful means to highlight the ways that structural forms of violence and disadvantage are manifest in sexual and interpersonal realms. It is fitting, for example, that Anglo-Australian Nice Arms Pete, already a character with more freedom of mobility than his boyfriend, is able to abandon Bux in an instant, walking away from their messy home and their relationship. ‘I thought I was in love but he was a settler. Like all settlers he needed to get in, plant stuff in the ground that wasn’t his and move on.’ Bux, on the other hand, cannot leave. For Bux the injunction that he remain and endure is very clearly connected to the migrant family experience.
Such scripts are historical. Both men are actors in a recurring, historical dynamic that is larger than them both. One of the apparent B-plots in Down the Hume involves an earlier, historical relationship between Bruno, the aged care resident that Bux has befriended, and ‘Pete’, a white Australian lover Bruno had in the distant past and who he conjures up in memories (and whose name is not a coincidence). As a young migrant, Bruno met Pete at a factory where they both worked. Their secret love is part of a twentieth century history of clandestine inter-ethnic, homosexual desire, hidden from the official record, an untold story among the migrant and working-class communities in which these men existed.
Of most interest to Polites is the way that difference and power manifests within these relationships. Bruno emphasises his difference from his lost lover when he describes him to Bux:
He was an Australian. A really one, the kind I never be. Pete was his name. I thought to myself, Is this a Man? Is this an Australian? Down at pub everyday? Eating rubbish foods? Pete didn’t know how to eat when he came here, Pete didn’t know how to cook and clean, he no know about war life.
In Bruno’s account, Pete’s performance of a kind of Australian authenticity is inextricable from the type of masculinity he embodies: ‘Is this a Man? Is this an Australian?’ There is slippage between these categories. This is the celebrated Australian masculine identity that Bruno himself, on account of his own migrant identity, cannot claim. ‘Fuck this country’, he says afterwards.
While other queer Australian writers have addressed aspects of this topic, here the hierarchical organisation of queer sexualities in terms of race and class is a fully developed theme, one of Down the Hume’s central explorations, stripped of the romanticism that views the sexual and romantic networks of queer culture as a form of multicultural intermingling (which they no doubt also can be).
Class and race have been under-addressed problems for capital ‘G’ gay culture from the very beginnings of urban gay modernities. Liberation politics inherited feminist, Marxist and Black Power energies and philosophies, and radical AIDS activisms were galvanised by both race and class movements because of the unique capacity of epidemics to throw an ink-dye at populations and expose the class, race, kinship and sexual boundaries habitually crossed in everyday sexual encounters and drug-taking practices. And yet, nothing is more obvious now in post-marriage equality, global LGBTQI+ culture and politics than the privilege of rich white people.
And it sometimes feels as if nowhere in the world is as eager to obfuscate disadvantage and discontent in queer communities as Australia. Here, the persistence of the egalitarianism myth, the presumed universality of certain bourgeois life-norms (aspirations to property, rabid consumption, digital access, café culture), and a liberal fantasy of a multicultural pluralism maintained through a marketplace of cuisine diversity, multicultural arts and the ‘colourfulness’ of mixed-race neighbourhoods informs an eagerness to commoditise unthreatening forms of rainbow difference as just another feature of that marketplace. When it comes to pointing out gaping inequalities between different constituencies of queer people, the burden is largely worn by the wogs, the lesbians, the working class queers, trans and non-binary people.
For some readers the obviousness of the historical Pete/Nice Arms Pete parallel may seem a little on the nose, but this obviousness is deliberate. Bux’s relationship with a skip is not without precedent. Neither are the power dynamics of their relationship. We continue to act out the legacy of colonial and migration histories in intimate relationships, in the organisation of the sexual life of the city, and in how we structure communities. The history and politics of class and race inflect sex and intimacy in powerful ways, steering desire in certain directions and toward certain objects, managing and stratifying it in relentlessly hierarchical, frequently destructive ways, with uneven effects for the subordinate. Polites wants to make this so clear that readers (perhaps especially white gay male readers) cannot not notice it. Even if you feel there’s something formally or aesthetically inelegant about such a studied set of parallel histories, the point they make is clear: sexual and relational dynamics are conditioned by the specific histories of the post-colonial nation-state, its labour and migration policies, its sex-gender norms and its most violent racial and cultural encounters.
Bux’s life may be pretty shitty but Down the Hume is passionately invested in the places he lives. Most chapters are named after a street in Western Sydney – Auburn Road, Hadd Street, Brunker Road, Calder Parade. As the novel is mainly comprised of its protagonist’s excursions through these streets and the excursions into his thoughts and memories these trips arouse, it has a large and diverse supporting cast of multi-racial, multi-class bystanders and fellow flâneurs. The personal interweaves with the collective, places invoke memories and that place-memory nexus enables Polites to gesture to urban arcs of migration, settlement, tribal and multicultural formations, shifting economies of work, culture and education, consumption and gentrification, belonging and exclusion in these suburbs. These are the places where both Bux and his author have grown up, work, live and visit family; places with intricate lived significance for the ‘Lebs, wogs and reffos’ who inhabit them, and with more crude and exotic meanings for outsiders peering in.
Bux encounters many and varied urban passers-by whom he sizes up and objectifies in bluntly sexual, ethnic and class-based terms. Polites conjures the humans of Western Sydney (and later gay Sydney) via a kind of blithe, fast-paced stereotyping: ‘Wog MILFS in Lorna Jane with hungry power walks’, ‘Teen hijabis who were more like valley girls updating their Snapchat’, ‘high vis hotties’, ‘Plus-size pre-teen woglets’, ‘lumpen clublanders’, ‘tweedy gay men. Little-dog-owning types’, ‘Greek nouveau riche’, ‘ex local football stars who had resigned themselves to the three Ds: Diabetes, divorces and drunkenness.’ It is a catalogue that recalls the casual typing in Chandler and other American noir novels, offering unfiltered access to the hardboiled consciousness. It’s a strategy of noir – illuminating the inner world of the hardboiled narrator, highlighting their prejudices, distortions and blind spots. But it’s also an intriguing and provocative device for an author so clearly interested in how types and typing – ways of seeing others – are not only implicated in the ‘reality effects’ such stereotyping can have but in how our own experience and appraisal of others determines the way in which we ourselves are treated. In other words, how Bux views the people in his world frequently indicates something of his own sense of belonging or displacement, as well as offering a potential noirish clue (or red herring) about the fate that awaits him.
A few of these walking stereotypes step forward to play bit roles in Bux’s life. He gives them little nicknames: Trainer Bob, ‘the kinda guy that had pink nips and a bright pink dick with brown hair’, gives Bux one-on-one fire training at work, then resists Bux’s flirtatious overtures (‘I was a crappy Lolita. Too old’); ‘Tim Tam’, with ‘ice-cream smooth skin and dyed black hair’ is a gushing would-be fag hag neighbour who makes a cloying attempt to recruit him as her new gay best friend. ‘Dream Doc Darcy’ or ‘the Doc’, with whom Bux has a workplace hook-up, is ‘a fancy little homo. The type that has a good body and parents who never hit him.’ ‘Dark Rum’, who has an ‘oily forehead, dry cheeks and already had laugh lines and frown lines all over this face’, and ‘Scumbag Rat’s Tail’, ‘younger, a scumbag Aussie’, ‘red stubble and a rat’s tail he’d been growing from birth’, are two guys Bux has sex with in a public toilet.
Down the Hume draws attention to how we see and perceive the bodies of others through racial, gendered, industrial and class-based frames. Agatha, Bux’s supervisor at Park Road Aged Care, has ‘a muscular arse from all the working… but there was a little roll of flab where she tucked in her shirt… Her face slightly yellow from all the cigarettes.’ Just about every encounter Bux has with another human body is tinged with the ambivalent erotics of class and ethnicity – ambivalent, because these encounters spark fascination and desire alongside repulsion and disgust.
The scene with Trainer Bob is a good example not only of how these registrations of identity become legible on the lived body but how our perception of difference is always a perception of the self as well as of others. Like his description of Agatha’s service-economy body, Bux takes in Trainer Bob’s difference in class-bound and gendered terms:
In the little meeting room, we were supposed to be talking about fire safety, but graphs and training unit components couldn’t erase what was outside. The different ways we spoke came and sat next to us on plastic chairs. Our body shapes we inherited and fought for laid out on the table. Our money, the places we came from, ideas we picked up were all around us. In that shitty room. On display via our bodies. The accents when we said stuff. And the fact that I smelled like deodorant that comes in a man can and he smelled like something that started with the word Eau De.
Class in Australia is not a straightforward system, and seemingly reliable signifiers may conceal other types of information. Bux shows us the arrogance of assuming you know what you are seeing, but such judgments are frequently the occasion for a misreading. Noir is a genre in which exposition and character description tend to serve the dual functions of revelation and concealment so that while we are constantly offered blunt, seemingly straightforward appraisals of characters, what is more opaque is their intentions and the effect they will have on our hero’s fortunes. In noir, character misjudgement can be a tragic liability – how things and people appear to be is frequently unreliable. With Trainer Bob, for instance, Bux reckons he ‘knew the type. Bought in bulk, saved his pennies, a studio apartment too neat, bank loans for flat screens and OS trips, replica modernist furniture ‘cos the real shit is too much.’ He may be correct, but Trainer Bob resurfaces later somewhere unexpected and ominous. ‘The Doc’ becomes a significant character in the latter half of the book, a charming and attractive respite from Nice Arms Pete, offering the glimmer of a potential romantic destiny. Bux thinks he has a good read on the Doc, but here too there is more than meets the eye. In addition to his potential connection to a thuggish scheme, the Doc embodies patriarchal power, just in a more urbane and sophisticated way, wielding his white male privilege unselfconsciously and charmingly, with none of the brutishness and paranoia of Nice Arms Pete.
Bux’s perspective on things is also compromised and distracted by the sexiness of other bodies. The conceit of his hardboiled stream-of-consciousness also exposes the reader to his relentlessly horny gaze. Early on he spies a ‘random hottie’ on the bus who really gets ‘under his skin’:
A Benny Barba fade, number one clippers with a Nile River part, pomade slick. Mixed-race footy body from the Pacifica to Cape Town. Watched him stomp steel-capped boots down the bus, pulling at his half tucked-in shirt, looking like a donkey pretending to be a show horse… That Horseboy, he got at me.
When he gets off the bus he gives Horseboy an ‘up-downer’; ‘That little bugalugs had butterscotch biceps and blunt eyes. Made my dick twitch.’ When Bux finds that Nice Arms Pete has lied about being out of town, his reaction is checked by desire: ‘Saw Nice Arms Pete with that curvy behind and those masterful legs… Wanted to scream at him. Wanted to ask where he had been. Wanted those fair legs with translucent skin.’ There’s a constancy and a casualness to the lustful objectification in Down the Hume that shows better than many other books how it can feel living with a chronic sexualised alertness to the presence of other men – their bodies and behaviour, potential clues they might be queer, the studied mask of indifference that conceals these habits. Even just after Nice Arms Pete assaults him and walks out, Bux is utterly distracted by the cops that arrive at his house: ‘Arms busting out of blue short-sleeve shirts. Fresh out of the bacon factory. With those belts that fit perfectly around their waists… So sexy I wanted to be rude to them’; ‘I walked them outside and looked at their arses. Wombats fighting under a blanket.’ Men’s arses, on-display symbols of masculine potency, are a recurring motif. Down the Hume is nothing if not a poetics of the erotic power of the male arse above and beyond all other body parts, including big dicks and nice arms. Throughout his adventures Bux turns the men he encounters into explosively sexual objects, including and especially those with more white and masculine privilege than he has.
Western Sydney is almost as lurid and animating an impulse for this book as are its hero’s sexual and pharmaceutical cravings. Down the Hume pays complex and ambivalent tribute to the people and textures of life in that under-represented area. This is fitting given Polites’ role as Associate Director of SWEATSHOP, the collective that cultivates and champions the dramatic and literary voices of Western Sydney. I am not from nor have I spent much time in Western Sydney, but the book evokes it vividly, passionately and with nuance. In this way it is reminiscent of Loaded (1995), the debut work of another queer, Greek Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas, to whose work Down the Hume has inevitably been compared. The comparison is understandable as a first-book marketing strategy. But it is also a valid comparison in a range of ways, especially because Loaded is also a work of gritty urban flânerie about another young, working-class queer Greek idler’s trip through an under-represented urban landscape (and a ‘queerscape’) that scoops up drugs, public sex, tense minglings of race and class and the judgement of family members en route. Like numerous of Tsiolkas’ young male protagonists, Bux is a beleaguered working-class character. In his disposition toward the people and places of Western Sydney, Polites channels the ‘brutal tenderness’ that is so frequently a description of relationships among Tsiolkas’ characters.
Both Loaded and Down the Hume have the energy of a drug-addled gallivant across urban space: in Loaded it’s a sped up, amphetamine-enriched urban trawl of Melbourne that reveals the sexual and ethnic substrata of that city in the 1990s, its grimy locations for scoring drugs and having sex with strangers, straight, gay and closeted men. Down the Hume has a less addled and anxious tone, its protagonist hooked on a different drug in a less hopeful historical and economic place and time. It has the ‘gritty urban authenticity’ of the category of Australian grunge literature in which it has been positioned, again as a marketing strategy. But there are differences here too: for one, Polites’ debut is funnier.
In both cases the traversing of urban space is energising and queering. The mapping of queer space in the by-default-heterosexual spaces of the city is an avowedly political storytelling act, particularly in a location where, as Polites has noted, some queer migrants ‘pass’ as heterosexual or are on ‘the down low.’ Readers of cultural studies might think of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) – both Loaded and Down the Hume are fictions that flesh out what de Certeau called ‘the pedestrian speech act’, the story of someone’s idiosyncratic movement through the city in all of its unpredictable and subversive contingencies. A good example from the latter book is a scene in which Bux dresses in ‘Muslim drag’ as a means to disguise himself while stalking Nice Arms Pete. He goes into an Islamic men’s clothes store near Haldon Street and buys an all-white abaya, then emerges from the shop in the floor-length robe, having also picked up a red-and-white keffiyeh from a pile of scarves. He completes the outfit with mirrored aviator glasses with a faux-gold frame from a nearby two-dollar shop. It’s a comedic, noir-parody moment; it’s also a transformation that draws attention to a type of dominant Anglo-Australian gaze that homogenises different male ethnicities and is frequently unable or unwilling to distinguish between Arab, East Asian and Southern-European men. Bux walks up the road in his fake Muslim garb, noticing ‘the reverence’: ‘men nodded at me as I walked past. Groups of youths parted so I could walk through them.’ While he’s disguised, queer Greek Bux is able to deploy the dominant Australian orientalist gaze back against itself in a manner that resembles the tactics of the pedestrian in de Certeau – using small, everyday, often unconscious subterfuges to evade the dominant meanings of the public sphere. He exploits the homogenising of migrant men from the Middle East and Southern Europe as a means to spy on his boyfriend undetected.
De Certeau’s theory of walking in the city is a cultural studies classic partly because it scrutinises and elevates the thoroughly mundane experience, detecting within it layers of history, hierarchy and social struggle. The genres of the melodrama, and even the noir, could be said to do the same. As frustrated, lonely and inadequately loved as Bux is, even Syrinapx can’t block the richness of memory and meaning in the streets he roams. These are sites of belonging and non-belonging, painful and pleasurable childhood memories inter-strewn with those of neighbours past and present, endless vernacular and ritual formations that signify and consolidate the presence and belonging of migrant communities, as well as struggle and non-belonging.
Like Alan Hollinghurst, Polites is interested in the way desire, economic value and neoliberal forms of self-creation operate in starkly opportunistic, individualistic and malignant ways, and how ethnic diversity and sexuality complicate these systems. Under neoliberal social ethics, human relationships are subject to the rules of the market: competition, private enterprise and individual gain. Polites is concerned with the socialities of neoliberalism – that is to say, what neoliberal systems of economic and social regulation do to people’s feelings and situations, their relationships with each other and ways of being in the world. He has said as much in his description of Nice Arms Pete as a character inspired by both narcissistic personality disorder and neoliberalism. Nice Arms Pete is a person with little to trade beyond physical resources: a man who ventures in risky markets in exchange for quick and hopefully substantial returns; someone for whom physical appeal, muscularity and potency are key resources of exchange. Working out and taking steroids, for example, are investments in his reservoir of human capital in both gay and Western Sydney.
Within this economic metaphor Bux is another kind of subject of neoliberalism: a working class loser, a victim of the casualised labour force. He’s a member of a migrant working class, a wage slave in a service industry dominated by casualisation and workplace precarity, short on resources and agency, an everyday casualty of corrupt social and industrial systems. He’s more vulnerable to exploitation within these economies because his sexuality isolates him from the small protections offered by the family unit. Ian Crouch has written of the noir protagonist that:
Noir characters stand alone, outside of civility and outside of society. ‘Nobody in noir fiction has a mother, nobody has children, nobody has someone that they love and care about. They live by themselves, for themselves.’ Cut off from the longstanding values of the human family, these characters turn to immediate desires.
This is not true of Bux – for one, he certainly has a family. However, noir may help to highlight something about the nexus between family, queerness and neoliberalism that makes queer people who are cut off from certain institutions particularly isolated and vulnerable. In Bux’s case, being queer and a working class wog in Western Sydney makes him especially alone – and lonely. It also makes him vulnerable because his desires – an overwhelming desire for male bodies, a yearning for the love of a violent and withholding man, and an increasingly all-enveloping craving for the soothing promise of painkillers – drive him to distraction.
Through his observations we get a sense of a desire economy in which bodies are deployed as a highly precarious source of erotic and social capital. In the gay community of Sydney there are routes to ascension via masculine, muscular, straight-acting, youthful comportment and varying flavours of sexualised ethnicity, with the white, muscular, straight-acting Anglo-Australian gay man always at the top of the pile. Nice Arms Pete is someone striving upward within this economy; Bux is someone with less capital, excluded from certain forms of urban queer cultural participation premised on lifestyle, consumption and body-beautiful gym culture.
Clint Caward in the Sydney Morning Herald writes that the novel depicts Sydney ‘under a kind of apartheid’. If the term is a little shocking, in need of the qualifier ‘a kind of’, it’s partly because Australians don’t like to imagine our own forms of white supremacy as on par with those of South Africa or the United States. But when it comes to the vision of gay Sydney in the novel, a kind of ethnic and class-based apartheid is in operation. The night-time economy of Oxford Street runs with ‘night owl convenience stores kept open on the back of South Asian guys on 457 visas.’ Ethnicity and race are central to the organisation of people, work and intimacy in that geographical and metaphorical space.
Bux has special venom for aspirational gay Sydney. Darlinghurst, Rushcutters Bay and Oxford Street are corrupt, soulless places, more depraved than anything that might happen in his and Nice Arms Pete’s squalid little cottage. Gay Sydney is in fact the place from which the noirish criminal machinations of the story originate. The cheapness of this milieu is embodied by figures like Trainer Bob who runs a soft porn racket, conducting tacky shoots with ‘Basic bitches with overly worked pecs that had stumbled into a studio with a fresh haircut’, trussing his photos up as erotic photography. Other human leeches in this world include ‘Honourable Vamp Lawyer Type’ William Sexton, another bit character who epitomises the vacuousness of the gay scene: a ‘suit bag’, ‘his eyes hid a dark cheapness that comes from a boring life’.
Gay Sydney is not only dead on the inside but sinister. Bux recalls being taken along to a New Year’s Eve party by an upstart baby barrister he was briefly dating. The party was all ‘flowing mineral water and designer drugs’, innocuous enough until a smacked-out twink, struggling to keep his eyes open beyond slits, is brought in by someone and becomes the object of prodding and poking: ‘The suits kept getting grabbier. Grabbier. Standing around him. A Sony handycam appeared and I knew how far the rabbit hole went’. Beyond the scene’s aspirationalism and banality is the amorality of its sexual marketplace and its neoliberal exploitation and neglect of the welfare of the vulnerable.
Bux feels alien to this community but his antipathy is complicated by envy and desire. He feels victimised by class-based and ethnic prejudices in the gay world, but wields his own double standards of judgement. He himself gets off on and remains in a physically abusive relationship with an Anglo-Australian, but recalls a flatmate he once had with what can only be called slutshaming disdain: ‘At my crib, night, post work. Slap, slap, choke. My soundtrack was my twink flatmate skull fucked by some wog slut.’ In his loathing of a certain strata of gay men and certain modes of gay presentation there is some garden variety internalised homophobia, effeminophobia, and the familiar trope of the gay man as vampire or zombie – soulless, amoral, motivated by desire only. Gay men are famously disgusted by one other.
And yet, disgust and resentment doesn’t stop Bux from wanting to fuck hot white men, and he has his own kind of ethnic and masculine capital in this scene. He resents the constraints of ethnic hypermachismo, his ‘straight acting fatigue’, but he exploits the benefits of his exotic westie masculinity: ‘I was a raconteur with stories of Sydney badlands’.
Like James M. Cain’s America, a place of radically transforming gender roles and a crumbling manufacturing economy, contemporary Australia is a place of unstable identities and profound workplace uncertainty. Dour as this designation might sound, Down the Hume is a kind of ‘neoliberal noir’, a genre foregrounding the experience of someone at the margins and the intersections, a migrant working class gay man whose experience is indicative of the fortunes of the sexually, ethnically and economically peripheral in neoliberal life.
The provocative things that noir has done for class and gender-based forms of social critique it here does for working-class queerness and ethnic diversity – that is, for intersectionality. As well as a neoliberal noir, we could call Down the Hume an ‘intersectional noir.’
But this intersectional noir that Polites has conjured is not a straightforward thing. For example, in spite of their overlapping structural critiques, ‘queer’ and ‘noir’ don’t fall together without some friction. Even as Polites seems to embrace ‘queer’ as a politic and a lifeworld through which everyday forms of pleasure, humour, transgression and survival might be wrought from within the mundane cesspits of structural despair, noir demands fatalism, the system that prevails and the plot that portends ever-narrowing possibilities. Utopian dreams of a better, queerer world aren’t on the menu. The challenges that queer and noir present to one another make Down the Hume an interesting challenge to queer literature itself – an unsettling and slightly sordid challenge.
Of course, both queer and noir offer frameworks in which class deconstructs romance. In both, love isn’t redemptive. Relationships are only meaningful in as far as they satisfy material desires, and when they don’t things fall apart. Love is an ideological ruse.
Noir may be a great vehicle for the trajectories of neoliberalism. It may tell us about the painful decay of the welfare state. It may help show up the microaggressions and petty abuses of neoliberal intimacies, as well as the structures of disadvantage in which these forms of sociality unfold: how this economic way of living makes us do awful things to one another; how people become disposable just as they offer us access to something; how people are reducible to a set of effects or connections, temporary resources and forms of capital, their willingness or not to collude with your own motives.
The predicament of class, the situation of aspirationalism, and the class-bound aesthetics of the suburbs are the classic tropes of American noir. The new context of 2010s Western Sydney, gay life in metropolitan Australia, and their thoroughly neoliberal spaces of social relations brings a new salience to the noir. While feminist and queer re-envisionings have cut across the genre, demonstrating its undergirding conflicts of class, gender and heteronormative politics to begin with, race, migration and hybrid urban identities are a newer ingredient and, in dialogue with noir, they can make the genre fresh and powerful again.
Ian Crouch, ‘Noir Fiction: Money, Sex and Revenge’, The New Yorker, October 5 2010.
Joyce Carole Oates, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, The New York Review of Books, December 21 1995.
Down the Hume
by Peter Polites
Published February, 2017