Book review: Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods
Christos Tsiolkas, author of award-winning novels (Dead Europe, The Slap), shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has released his first collection of short fiction. And as you’d expect, the stories are by turns lyrical, violent, and utterly gripping.
A man masturbates his dementia-addled father in ‘Genetic Material’; a mother watches her dead son’s gay porn film in ‘Porn 1’; in ‘Civil War’, a hitchhiker accepts a lift from a racist, gun-hoarding truckie; and ‘Petals’, originally written in Greek, is a visceral piece about a prisoner serving out his sentence.
Themes of gayness, ethnicity and class, prevalent in Tsiolkas’ novels, also form the undercurrent of his stories here, tugging the reader along in an immersive narrative. There’s a brutal energy and a violence that’s uncomfortable (a young man is raped by his drunk boyfriend in ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’; a straight man agrees to shoot a gay porn film to pay off a debt in ‘Porn 2’). But Tsiolkas demonstrates a tenderness towards his protagonists too, who are often vulnerable and imperfect, wounded by the relationships closest to them.
Take ‘Sticks, Stones’ for example. A mother hears her handsome teenage son calling a girl with Down Syndrome a ‘mong’ and develops a revulsion towards him that makes her lash out with bitterness. Inversely, the narrator of ‘Tourists’ makes a racial slur against a museum staffer in New York, invoking the rage of his girlfriend and causing him to reassess their relationship.
And while sex, profanity and drug use pepper the pages without restraint, there’s also love, beauty and compassion reflected in the lives of the couples and families in these stories.
One of the strengths of this collection is that Tsiolkas manages to dilute highly political, racial and gendered perspectives through the subjective and contrasting view of his characters. In ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’, a man attends his younger brother’s pre-funeral wake. The brothers are polar opposites; one has followed the conservative path demanded by his migrant parents, the other, a gay anarchist living in Byron Bay, died while shooting up speed at fifty-two. Despite their abhorrence of each other’s lifestyles, the death forces the older brother to put aside his anger and remember with admiration his brother’s independence and steely willpower, the very characteristics that caused their estrangement.
If you’re after a powerful Australian voice that reflects the realities of an alternate Australia not often depicted in our mainstream channels – one that pushes back on the hetero white male-dominated world view, one that admits to the racism and prejudice still rife – then Merciless Gods will deliver.
Review by Catherine Mah