Luke Carman’s 2013 short novel ‘An Elegant Young Man’ is a dark, witty, honest portrayal of a young man’s life growing up in Western Sydney. Whether this is actually Carman’s own story or only influenced by is irrelevant: the short pieces which form snapshots of a character’s time as child, teen, twenty something and thirty something, are realistic enough to be true, and / or interesting enough to also be fiction. The blurb of the novella claims that Carman ‘tells how it is on Australia’s cultural frontier’, Western Sydney. I don’t know if Liverpool truly is a cultural frontier but certainly the West has been a part of Sydney that has been largely ignored by literature, and subsequently I found ‘An Elegant Young Man’ original and engaging.
Carman’s dark sense of humour really delighted me. I loved the passages about the character Luke’s father. The gruff man’s commentary on his son’s and the neighbourhood friends’ Christmas play was sweet: ‘a plague on both our houses’. Carman’s description of Luke’s childhood friend Arnold was also sweet, a chubby and earnest Fijian boy, and his younger brother, a shy and silent boy: ‘Adam ate in a trance, lost in his inner world, the idyllic daydream of youth was always around him like a nakedness in the decline of our little mountain’.
Carman often describes ugly scenes, realistic portrayals of flabby bodies, worn out old faces, and sneering boys hanging around kebab shops: however, his writing is often beautiful, even describing the grim world of Cronulla’s main strip at peak drinking hour, ‘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’. Often his language is reminiscent of the short, sharp dialogue of a noir thriller, ‘For a man like me, that was too much of a woman, and I didn’t ever want any more’ and this is in keeping with the swagger of the main character and the world he inhabits. And sometimes the imagery made me smile wryly such as the vividly disgusting description of the smell of a wrestling opponent’s arm pit as ‘like the interior of a Christmas ham-bag’.
My favourite pieces were about the character Luke’s time in the inner West, feeling like an imposter amongst the too-cool-for-school university set. Carman wonderfully sets up the story of his mate Brent through an urban style legend amongst the Newtown crowd, and it’s a lovely piece. I would like to think Brent was a real person: he sounds charmingly droll, ‘He looked into the colourful heap of confectionary and then into my eyes and said “I don’t want your chocolate. My guess is: nobody here does,” and he pushed past me and into the crowd’. Another piece about a girl, Nell, who holds poetry recitals in her Newtown terrace, is also a charming passage: ‘Nell looked deflated 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’.
Carman references his teenage love of Henry Rollins, and the day at school after September 11, and the impact of WWF wrestling on his peer group in western Sydney. He covers a wide range of material in a short text. However, the most lingering piece for me was the third part of his chapter ‘Rare Birds’ where he describes the tumultuous relationship with Louise, ‘a sad-eyed girl with pale skin and black hair that hung to her elbows’. The piece, which follows a road trip that tore the two apart, didn’t echo any part of a relationship that I had experienced, and yet it still felt like a universal experience.
I hope Carman writes more material based in Sydney: he understands it, and has illuminated some interesting pockets of the population and landscape. I’d also like to think that he would be reassured by my admission that it was not only people from the Western suburbs who felt like imposters at the inner west University parties – I’m fairly certain only kids born and bred in Enmore and Newtown ever felt completely entitled to be there.