Review: The Pillars by Peter Polites

The narrator of The Pillars is Pano, a late-20s/early-30s prose poet of Greek descent living in Western Sydney. He lives with Kane, an IT consultant with tribal tattoos who jokes that Pano call him “landlord”, not “housemate”. That is significant in a novel where property power is everything and each word seems to take on a menacing aura.

Kane becomes obsessed with fighting a proposed mosque down the road, which he is concerned will lower the suburb’s property values. He convinces Pano, with sexual gratification that Pano mistakes for a healthy relationship, to help him in his campaign. I’m not sure this is saying a lot about the relationship between gays and Islam, beyond people being self-serving hypocrites; it’s played more for shock-value and humour.

More complex is the ghost-writing gig Pano is doing for Basil, a waxed-smooth fuckboy property developer Pano went to highschool with. And in flashbacks we see Pano’s relationship with his Greek heritage and his mother, who can’t work thanks to factory-induced asthma and suffers from some kind of debilitating psychosis. This feminine relationship maybe, just maybe, offers Pano some kind of salvation, or at least a power he can draw on.

Pano, to put it plainly, is a wet wipe. Internally virtuous, he goes along with all sorts of questionable schemes to be validated by others. He’s a walking result of toxic homo-masculinity. His late transformation into anti-hero, or just straight up villain, comes as a relief. Finally someone we can cheer for in this fucked up world! Underneath it all though is the agony of displacement, of being separated from who you are; it is this that stops the novel becoming a “burn it all” screed.

This is a novel set against Australia’s ridiculous housing market inequalities. Western Sydney is a place in flux, where the old migrant community is being rapidly displaced by an influx of cheap, poorly-constructed apartment complexes. Like Polites’ previous novel, Down The Hume, The Pillars operates primarily in a noir mode. Cynicism rules, morality is ambiguous, and identities can be manipulated to achieve whatever their possessor wants. It’s a world where the fucked-up-ness of late capitalism means you can only join in, or be crushed into the ground.

Polites’ writing has the clarity and incisiveness you would expect of a prose poet. It is as clean and empty (in a good way) as the housing estates and property developments sweeping Pano’s suburbs. People are reduced to brands, commodities and body parts; the sex is transactional, and hot. The Pillars is often funny, but its humour is ultimately subsumed to its grim outlook.

Gay rating: 5/5 for graphic gay sex, daddy issues, and ruthless satire of Sydney Instagays. 

The Pillars is published by Hachette. 

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