Book Review: Peter Polites’ Down The Hume shakes our expectations about “Australian” stories

When we think of an “Australian story” the ones that typically spring to mind are predominantly about the country, bush or the past. So what is a reader to do when they want something that reflects their own modern life in the Western suburbs of Sydney? Thankfully, Peter Polites has answered this in his debut novel, Down The Hume, one that seems like a likely successor to Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded.

Polites is the associate director of SWEATSHOP, a literary movement based in Western Sydney which is devoted to empowering marginalised communities. Polites was also a co-writer of the Sydney Festival show, Home Country, an epic story about culture and identity that was performed in a Blacktown carpark. When we consider Polites’ previous work it is unsurprising that he also brings his experiences as a young, homosexual man of Greek descent to his debut novel. The book’s main character Bux also has these same character traits, but Bux also loves a violent, abusive drug-enabler and gym-obsessed man named Nice Arms Pete.

Down The Hume is a little like a car speeding at full force along our nation’s famous highway from Sydney to Melbourne. The book is a complex one that negotiates important topics like machismo, hedonism and a deep sense of existential yearning. The text itself is also quite raw and confrontational. The story is told in the first person and you very much get the sense that you are along in the passenger seat for the ride with Bux, come what may.

We follow Bux through addiction to prescription medication, as well as some tender moments where he bonds with his mother (another person who had a “vanishing” and abusive man in her life) and a friendship with an elderly gentleman who he cares for at his nursing home job. Bux is a paranoid and jealous lover who takes to stalking his boyfriend Pete, whom he suspects of cheating.

Each of the chapters of the book are named after places in Sydney and sometimes these moments read like little vignettes or discrete episodes; Bux grapples with the implications and ideas of culture and identity as a man of Greek descent wearing an outfit typically worn by Middle Eastern men. In another moment he has to reconcile his position as a homosexual man with the weight of familial expectations on his head (in one flashback his family had assumed that he’d want to settle down with a nice girl and have a family.)

Down The Hume is a dark noir story. It uses sharp, street-wise language to create a multifaceted tale that reads like urban poetry. Peter Polites is ultimately a refreshing new voice in contemporary literature and his dynamic prose proves that there is so much more to Australian stories than the expected bush gangs, convicts and farms of yore.

Down The Hume by Peter Polites is out now through Hachette Australia.