Local novel trades in forgiveness
If you are used to reading tightly plotted crime fiction in which every word counts, Philip Salom’s latest character-driven novel will have you perplexed.
“Yes, I’m happy to meet and talk about it, soonish, though the novel is 400 pages long! Not a quick read,” he emailed North West City News.
This is Salom’s fourth novel and the most embedded in the local setting of North Melbourne and Parkville.
But his publishers, Transit Lounge, call Salom’s style digressive and that is an understatement.
The result is a sometimes-confusing jumble of character profiles assembled around a bicycle thief.
Inmates of a rooming house seem to pop into the narrative out of a past novel and a stream of consciousness style heralds the literary pretensions of the hero who has studied memoir while in jail.
Salom is an approachable author in the sense that he is often seen around on the streets, likes a chat and has picked up a lot of detail, some of which he uses to contrast Parkville with North Melbourne.
Sweeney, the bicycle thief, lives in his grandmother’s house in Parkville and also in a rooming house where he hangs out with the Sheriff who smokes rollies. “Parkville was just too bloody civilised. Smoking in the street was about as wild as it got.”
The Sheriff used to live in North Melbourne. “Yes, a livelier suburb by far, all the motley he could wish for. The happily truncated streets, the parks full of dogs and personal coaches and young breastfeeding mums, or the hipster gatherings on the green median strip outside The Auction Rooms. The bicycles parked everywhere.”
Sweeney wanders between the two suburbs admiring the bicycles. He is a bicycle romantic. Salom delights in the nominative case.
When he admires a gleaming Ferrari red bicycle no more than a week old, he grabs it, picks the lock and replaces it with one of his own that no-one else can trick open.
“Cars double-parked, as always in Errol St doing U-turns, and jaywalkers like himself crossing, pausing only to dodge cars and the 57 tram after it has screeched, sometimes excruciatingly, around the Queensberry St corner.”
Local colour such as this adds to the sense of urban confusion but there is a method to the chaos: the owners of the bikes Sweeney steals eventually turn up in the narrative and forgive him for it.
The owner of one bike is a woman called Rose who lives in a third-floor apartment on Villiers St with her sister. One day she catches the 59 tram into the CBD with her sister and sits next to Sweeney and the Sheriff. He has a bike with him. He looks familiar. He reminds her of his dad. She becomes a love interest.
When Sweeney is referred to a psychiatrist, she tests out a radical therapy on him, even though she has had her bike stolen by him as well.
The novel moves quite deeply into therapy mode “looking for patterns in past and present worries”.
Characters are more concerned with fulsome expression than the usual plot intersections, perhaps a liberating strategy in an age dominated by the intersectional orderliness of texting.
This is a live-and-let-live novel that is curiously inspiring, trading as it does in forgiveness rather than logic.
Sweeney and the Bicycles, Philip Salom, Transit Lounge, 2022. •