Omar Musa feels like small town boy done good. The rapper and beat poet’s first novel won national and international acclaim, a manifesto of modern masculine identity and tribalism. How friendships are formed, what fuels them, what it means. Here Come the Dogs is a book that I have avoided for a while: it so definitely fails the Bechdel test which generally just makes me feel bored and tired. When a significant majority of our narratives ignore 50 per cent of our community we all miss out. But I’m glad my curiosity won here because it’s an incredible story; a harsh, stunning image of masculinity and race and class and opportunity.
It’s a sinking summer in an unnamed regional town in Australia. Solomon Amosa is all charisma and charm, struggling after a basketball-career-ending injury but not yet out. He hangs out with his “beige” half-brother Jimmy and their childhood friend Aleks, mixing beats, a few drinks, a bit of graff.
It starts with “Where are these cunts?”, opening some of the most Australian contemporary poetry I’ve ever read.
limbs turn to fire,
my body an instrument
the flick of the wrist,
The words spring across the page with the ball, as Solomon dances in his sport, dances around the issues. It manifests into a muscular study into dislocation, dispossession and mateship; “The unspoken corollary is that it must be proved, again and again, through gifts, vocal affirmation, extreme violence.”
I suppose this is a coming-of-age novel, but for men who are well past the point you would expect for this kind narrative. They almost thrash around, away from the support offered, either deeper into depression and self-destruction, or toward a new identity, freshly wrought. Perhaps this all sounds naff but the darkness and depth that this comes from, the raw truth that Musa is able to express, the frustration being surrounded by a middle class life when you’re searching for more; it all lands perfectly, right on pitch.
It all strikes me as true to life too: the random hook ups, the risky behaviour, the dissatisfaction, the testing of boundaries. It makes sense to me and rings right not for narrative’s sake but for where this men are from, what that part of Australia is like, how the struggle works there.
“As he dances, he thinks of lost dogs, who snarl and pant in alleyways; those that race and are put to death; of all the pretty birds that fly so fast but never fast enough; of the dignity born from suffering, only to be translated into madness and bone; of endurance; of sad fires lost in space, flapping like tattered flags.”
So while I don’t struggle with race, or a missing father, or the masculine identity, I get the growing up. The reaching for more, the sticking your head above the parapet to see what else is there, the fear from leaving behind what you know even when you know it’s not enough. It’s about finding your identity. Through his poetry, Musa has perfectly distilled this experience, his experience, and mate it relatable for everyone.