"Race or get erased," mutters a jail inmate in "Here Come the Dogs," Omar Musa's rousing debut novel about the lives of restless young men in small-town suburban Australia. The imperative is a reference to staying competitive — more specifically, to dealing drugs, as long as there's a clientele for it. But it also serves as a motto for a broader, grim reality at the heart of the town and others like it: Move forward or sink.
Musa, a Malaysian Australian poet and rapper who has opened for the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and Dead Prez, writes using an urgent poetry-prose hybrid, scraping and folding his text into a searing coming-of-age story that tackles race and masculine identity, dislocation and disempowerment. His three main characters are immigrants and men of color, and they experience this motto — race or get erased — in different ways.
For the Record
Jan. 15, 11:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled reviewer Jane Yong Kim's name as Jane Young Kim.
Solomon, who tells his part of the story in first-person free verse, is Samoan. He was once a promising basketball player, but an injury has kept him on the sidelines and soured his spirit. His half-brother Jimmy is "no good with his fists / but uses rumours like napalm." Of uncertain heritage, he stands at the margins, lusting after blond women, red cars and a homeland. Aleks, a model immigrant with "a missus, a young daughter / and a house he built himself," also has a knack for small crime. Dissatisfied with his double life, he dreams of returning home to Macedonia.
Theirs is a world of arrested development: of pickup games on basketball courts set to be razed; of graffiti prowess demonstrated in the thick of night; of freestyle rap battles they've aged out of but still drop in on, like college kids crashing a high school party. It's summer in suburbia, and the bleached grass, eucalyptus trees and empty driveways all seem starved by drought. The whole place "is a powderkeg / a perfect altar for a bushfire — / the sole god of a combustible summer."
Like the bone-dry grass, Musa sets up his characters' emotions to combust. The effect of not having a homeland, whether physical or spiritual, is a through-line. Musa is particularly eloquent in crafting Solomon, whose rootlessness and growing frustration hide under a charismatic shell: He is covered in tattoos but doesn't know what they mean and talks meaningfully of visiting his father's village in Samoa but never has. Jimmy is something like Dostoyevsky's Smerdyakov, more overtly in search of father and identity; in a poignant scene, his phone rings and a mysterious paternal voice advises him on the best way to make curry, directions that he feverishly follows. Meanwhile, Aleks, full of geographic pride, plays the foil: His patriotism makes Solomon uneasy, a nod to how alien the mere notion of affiliation can appear to those without that luxury.
Such feelings of dislocation churn against a backdrop of racial unrest that is sweeping the country. Are these protests or riots? A government spokesperson repeatedly appears on television, offering a familiarly audacious, top-level interpretation of the chaos: "In these times of disorder, we need to name people for what they are — thugs."
A remarkable plot point enables Solomon's crew to cross paths with the spokesperson in real life; their tense interaction serves as a kind of recompense for all the times political demagogues use inflammatory rhetoric without facing any consequences.
But while Solomon and his friends feel solidarity with the protesters, their simmering largely remains in a bunker. Just as the boys Solomon used to play ball with are "all clean cut / working in the public service now," the world at large is getting more buttoned up and paved over, except, of course, where it isn't. In Aleks' neighborhood there is "a phone box with tags all over it, various shades of dripping red and black, Poscas and Molotow flowies. An endless cycle of scrawling and buffing, buffing and re-scrawling — the signatures of generations. He imagines a magic machine stretching out every layer in 2D planes like an accordion."
The shift in frame that allows a mess of overlapping paint to become individuated layers of artistry underscores the extent to which naming rights go to those in power: protesters or thugs, defacement or the signatures of generations. It's a tension that resonates as the distance between what the crew cherishes and what society tells them is valuable grows.
Jimmy, feeling left behind at every turn, increasingly appears to be tinder waiting for a spark. Solomon's attempts to build community are foiled by encroaching urban development. Aleks tries to rejoin the law-abiding world, but family and friends lean on his ability to break the rules. What kind of a support system is that?
"Here Come the Dogs" is a reference to the friends' favorite pastime, going to the greyhound track, where, Solomon observes with glee, they are "the only ethnics at the dog races," interlopers at a cruel sporting event frequented by white old-timers.
The trio roots for Mercury Fire, a one-eyed greyhound that's set to retire. They speculate about what happens to a racing dog past its prime: Does it get retrained as a pet, killed, or released into the wild? It's an idle question, but it gnaws at them. Solomon's impulsive decision to buy Mercury Fire is an attempt to thwart that sense of disquiet and to rebut the idea that one must "race or get erased."
The imperative pertains to the racing dogs but also to Solomon's crew, and Musa uses it to pose a question with a well-worn answer: How much cruelty can flow downhill before those on the receiving end break, before the system itself breaks? With compassion and urgency, "Here Come the Dogs" excavates the pain of those who struggle to remain part of a ruthless equation that has been determined by others.
Here Come the Dogs
The New Press: 352 pp., $16.95 paper