Reviewed: So Close To Home, Mick Cummins, Affirm Press
In playwright and social worker Mick Cummins’ debut novel, So Close to Home, we meet eighteen-year-old Aaron Peters in the throes of heroin withdrawal. An ‘incoming tide of pain’ causes him to shiver in warm rooms; noise becomes unbearable, drowning out the possibility of coherent thought. The novel continues to introduce us to a cast of supporting characters, who each flit in and out of Aaron’s life. The constant is his mother, Vicky, a hairdresser who we learn has kicked her son out of the family home because of his drug use. They see each other on occasion; Cummins sketches out tender scenes where Vicky cuts Aaron’s hair or washes his clothes. Then there’s Samantha, a schizophrenic ‘hanger-on’ who is partnered to Dave, Aaron’s neighbour at the boarding house where he resides. Dave is also a heroin user, as is Zoe—a single mother fighting to regain custody of her child.
These characters remain largely invisible, concealed by an inscrutability that simultaneously works in their favour and isolates them from the world beyond the fringe. Aaron is repeatedly asked for proof of identification—first by a hostel receptionist and then a pawn shop owner—but he possesses none. For all the world knows, Aaron doesn’t exist. This sense of anonymity is underscored by the novel’s erratic beats as he scores and shoots up, and as he meets with dealers amongst the thrum of bodies at train stations and rooming houses.
Although the novel is clearly set in 2012, in various parts of North and South Melbourne as well as St Kilda, many facets of Aaron’s world feel as if they’re from another time, such as when a social worker writes Aaron a cheque for a youth hostel. Later, we discover that Aaron charges an elderly businessman (referred to as ‘the Man’ throughout the novel) only three hundred dollars for a weekend of sex. At his rooming house, people listen to CDs, not mp3 players. These persistent anachronisms demonstrate how much Aaron and those in his circumstances are effectively cut off from the resources of the modern world.
But what feels less convincing are the cultural references that Cummins inserts throughout the novel. Aaron notices 1967 Volkswagens, but other cars are labelled vaguely as a ‘late model’. Music references are limited to artists such as Jim Morrison, Dee Dee Ramone, Sid Vicious and Janis Joplin, despite Aaron being a musician. While this may be Cummins’ decision to trim the narrative of unnecessary background information, the choice of detail can be disorienting, especially as the prose is often weighted with adjective: ‘Melbourne’s autumn sun throws leafy shadows across the late nineteenth-century red-brick facades, where a middle-aged woman in polka-dotted jeans grabs his attention’. This overattention to detail is incongruent next to Cummins’s indistinct characterisation—Samantha is described as ‘not unattractive but slightly mad in a nice way’, while Dave ‘reminds Aaron of his high school principal’, but we never find out why.
So Close To Home is an empathetic novel given its themes, but it would have been much more powerful if its supporting characters were given more complexity. ‘The Man’, for instance, could be any archetypal villain: he wears suits, belongs to a secret society and listens to classical music in his secluded country house. Furthermore, minor characters such as Dave and Samantha seem to represent elements of dysfunction or act merely towards the progression of significant events. As a result, the plot feels broad but flat—a lot of ground is covered but the novel overall lacks narrative depth.
This might be due to the fact that the novel was written by someone working within the social services sector. ‘People have to tell you their stories, as a social worker,’ says Cummins in conversation with Lucy Christopher at the launch of the novel in Hobart/nipaluna, adding that he has ‘never done heroin, never been traumatised as a child, never been homeless’, but has spoken to hundreds of people living in such circumstances as the characters in So Close To Home. Sector workers perspectives are not uncommon in literature; they tend toward a distinct lack of voice that arises when constructing narrators from an assemblage of case studies. This sense of distance reminded me at times of another acclaimed Australian novel, Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light, which also traverses opiate addiction through its protagonist and has been described as being based on careworker reports. Maybe I’m missing something, but I felt like the characters in both lacked specificity. So Close To Home would be much more compelling if it didn’t read so much like an amalgamation of trajectories siphoned onto the page.