Rebecca Jessen reviews “Here Come the Dogs” by Omar Musa
by Omar Musa
Reviewed by REBECCA JESSEN
In an unnamed small suburban town we follow the lives of three young men, Solomon the over-confident charmer, Jimmy his half-brother who tags along, waiting to make his mark, and Aleks who is slightly removed from the others, looking after his family and dealing with the consequences of his violent past. Each of the characters has their own story and set of problems, but the three men are united by a love of hip-hop, graffiti, violence and women.
It’s no surprise then to find out that Omar Musa is multi-talented, a poet and rapper from Queanbeyan, New South Wales. In 2008 he won the Australian Poetry Slam and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam in 2009. On top of this, Musa has also released two self-published books (The Clocks and Parang), two solo hip-hop records (World Goes To Pieces and The Massive EP) and a self-titled album with international hip-hop group, MoneyKat. Here Come The Dogs is his first full-length novel.
Here Come The Dogs is part prose, part verse novel, Musa alternates between prose and verse effortlessly. It takes a skilled writer to be able to pull off the two styles and deftly weave them together with such self-assuredness. Musa credits his style of verse to late Australian poet Dorothy Porter. Musa says, ‘I tried writing verse in different forms and I couldn’t quite get it, but after reading Monkey’s Mask it clicked and I could see how verse could paint pictures and vignettes quickly.’ (Kennedy 2014) Porter’s influence is apparent, though perhaps most evidently through Musa’s willingness to tackle the big issues with a level of fearlessness. In an interview with Melbourne Spoken Word, Musa says, ‘It’s unafraid to be unruly, and dangerous, and wild. And I like to hope that this book is a little bit fearless; that I kind of went for it.’ (Maya 2014)
Musa embraces the language of the streets in Here Come The Dogs, at times it reminded me of Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man (2013), which is set mostly in Western Sydney; the two books share similar themes and language. Growing up in Western Sydney, much of Musa’s landscape is familiar to me and there are echoes of that suffocating feeling that you’re stuck in a place you’ll never make it out of.
Here Come The Dogs opens at the dog races and the rhythm, use of language and imagery immediately sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Where are these cunts?
Too hot, bro,
too fucken long without rain.
Two by two they troop in,
the madness of summer in the brain.
In the dying light,
the crowd looks like hundreds of bobbling balloons,
waiting to be unfastened.
Sweating tinnies and foreheads –
sadcunts and sorrowdrowners the lot of them. (5)
Musa tackles many themes throughout the novel, some more overt than others. In an interview, Musa says ‘I was interested in writing about powerlessness, about migrations, masculinity and violence in Australian society…’ (Kennedy 2014) These themes come through very strongly in the book and create many talking points. What struck me most were the connections Musa draws between masculinity and violence and how this impacts the women in the novel. I found the treatment of women throughout the novel to be particularly problematic and troubling, partly because it rings true, and partly because Musa does little to challenge stereotypes and in many scenes only works to reinforce them.
One of the main characters, Jimmy, is in the supermarket browsing the aisles and muses,
‘You’re in charge, browsing where you like, and it’s all on display for your pleasure. Take what you want.’ (102)
On reading this passage I immediately marked it on the page and would return to it again and again as I continued reading. This attitude of ownership and privilege seems indicative of how the men in Here Come The Dogs relate to and treat women. As a queer, feminist reader, I’m aware of my own set of biases when reading a text, especially a text that goes out of its way to be viewed as ‘masculine’. One look at the endorsements on the front cover (Christos Tsiolkas and Irvine Welsh) is telling of the intended audience for the book. There are many gems of truth to be found in this book, especially relating to race and racism, Musa seems on point in the sections that deal with these issues, however when it comes to portrayals of sexism and misogyny, there’s still work to be done.
At one point, Scarlett Snow, Solomon’s new fling, calls Solomon out on the fact that he has no female friends.
‘Do you have any female friends?’
‘Ones you haven’t slept with?’
‘Your group of mates is a cock forest, Solomon. Admit it.’
‘It’s not that bad. They’ve been my mates forever, what do you want me to do?’
‘Don’t you hate people who are all style over substance?’
I try to smile. ‘Ouch.’
‘I’m serious. If you don’t contribute anything, anything at all, what’s the point?’
I realise she’s for real. ‘Why do you keep seeing me, then?’
‘Because you’re a good fuck.’
‘Jesus.’ Whatever she’s doing, it’s working. I’ve never been more angry or turned on.
‘What about companionship? Don’t you think you need that?’
She laughs. ‘I don’t need anything. Least of all from you.’
I want to make her take the words back.
She’s loving it,
‘Used to getting your way, aren’t you Solomon?’
I stand up shaking.
‘See you again soon? I’ll call you,’ she says.
‘I’ll think about it.’ I want to hit her. (181)
This scene illustrates to the reader that Musa is aware of the lack of female characters, and more so, the treatment of women in the novel. However, simply pointing out an issue isn’t enough to qualify as having dealt with it. This is a key scene in terms of the intersection between notions of masculinity and violence and how these beliefs impact the female characters. When faced with being emasculated, each of the three male characters respond with violence in an attempt to regain power and control over their situation. Solomon does this on several occasions, first with girlfriend Georgie, then later with Scarlett Snow.
Throughout the novel, there is a consistent theme, women lack a voice, they have no agency. Aleks’ wife Sonya appears to be suffering from depression but we never find out exactly why. When Aleks finds out his sister Jana has a girlfriend, he reacts with violence, ultimately severing his relationship with his sister. Jimmy stalks Hailee, a travel agent who has a boyfriend and no interest in being involved with Jimmy. He follows her home from the supermarket and watches her through an open window. Later, when she embarrasses him, he goes to her house again and throws a brick through the window. Instances like these are littered throughout Here Come The Dogs, and while these views may not be consistent with the author’s, Musa fails to create any internal or external consequences for his character’s actions and treatment towards women.
The novel loses some of its fire towards the end, and rather than going out with a bang, it seems to slowly fizzle out in Part Three. While each of the three male characters are well drawn, Solomon and Jimmy lack character development as the novel progresses. Aleks seems to undergo the biggest transformation towards the end of the novel when he decides against using violence to solve a problem. In direct contrast, Jimmy starts a bushfire and Solomon lets everything slip away, rather than fighting for what he believes in.
‘Fuck the court. Fuck the kids.
And fuck Scarlett if she doesn’t wanna call back.
Maybe she’d stay if I got her pregnant …’ (294)
Jimmy is the most interesting and complex of the three male characters. It’s no coincidence that Jimmy is the one who ends up with Mercury Fire, the greyhound Solomon bought. Both Jimmy and Mercury Fire are wounded, broken underdogs that nobody expects much of.
Musa uses the verse form to great effect, combining poetry and narrative energy to thrust the reader forward, through the book. Musa’s delivery is to be admired, in parts, the writing sparkles. Imagery is at times lush and lucid, reminding the reader, even in the prose sections, there is a poet at work here.
‘I always thought that, from above,
The circle of heads
Would look like bullets loaded in a chamber,
Each MC ready with his percussive, weaponised voice.’ (24)
Kennedy, Cris. “Omar Musa’s Here Come The Dogs is trainspotted”. Sydney Morning Herald. 2014. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/omar-musas-here-come-the-dogs-is-trainspotted-20140709-zszu5.html. (Viewed 19 January 2015)
Maya, Carrie. “Interview with Omar Musa”. Melbourne Spoken Word 2014. http://melbournespokenword.com/?p=1115. (Viewed 19 January 2015)
REBECCA JESSEN is the award-winning author of verse novel Gap (UQP, 2014). Her writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Stilts and Scum Mag. She blogs at becjessen.wordpress.com.