Recently I wrote about the pleasures and discomforts of reading a book set in the place I grew up. Ronnie Scott’s novel The Adversary though is something far worse: a book set in the world I live in now.
Narrated by an unnamed young man, this novel of gay frenemy-ship is set in share house in Brunswick, a couple of blocks from where I live, with a view of Princes Park where I walk most days. Moreover its characters drink wine on sloping terrace balconies, wear loose shirts and boots, go to beach houses on the Mornington, the Smith Street gay bars, and the Fitzroy Pool; those centres of Melbourne gay life (or more specifically, northern-inner-suburb Melbourne gay life). I feel like I know the specific day (January 28, 2018) when the Bureau of Meteorology described a humid Melbourne night as “oppressive”, as a character ponders in the book. I remember the bittersweet glitterbomb of the same-sex marriage plebiscite result in late 2017, standing on the State Library lawn.
Which is a long way of saying that I liked this book a lot but also found it kind of terrifying. I became paranoid that my likeness might appear on the page, and it would be unflattering. Because Ronnie Scott has scratched away at queer life and relationships to uncover uncomfortable truths.
Our unnamed narrator, a uni student, is housemate of Dan, who he met at uni, and became friends with after a failed tryst. The narrator has a “problem with mouths”, which extends to a problem with bodies that prevents him becoming intimate, and a reluctance to go outside that sometimes seems to border on agoraphobic. Or maybe it is just a carefully managed disentanglement from anything that might compromise what he imagines as his self-reliance. He’s a great gay character in the tradition of Nick Guest from The Line of Beauty: strangely endearing, witty, and fantastically lacking in self-awareness.
Coaxed out of the house, the narrator falls into a loose group of early-20-somethings including Dan’s boyfriend Lachlan, his housemate Chris L, the older mysterious American visitor Vivian, and a stranger who goes only by the name Richmond Man. They are the only characters in the book; there are no women, no straight characters at all. The effect is potent and claustrophobic. Over a few short, hot summer weeks trouble ensues, as allegiances are betrayed, power shifts, and motives are revealed. There is a story of unrequited love in there somewhere. Who exactly the adversary is could be anyone, but possibly the narrator himself.
The Adversary is a lot about those gay groups that arise from “internet and sex people, people who’d upgraded into friends”. “It was easy to invent connections when no connections are there”, notes the narrator, exposing the anxieties at the heart of many queer relationships, “Such is the fate of homosexual boys in every high school”.
There are fumbles but no actual sex in The Adversary. There’s a curious throughline of seropolitics – Dan is HIV positive, and it is through him that the narrator is introduced to the “moral wilds”, a world where PrEP and gay marriage are complications, not only newfound freedoms. The narrator’s squeamishness with bodies may have something to do with the hard-to-shake stigma that gay sex and blood is dirty, a history which frames the novel’s wildest scene.
If it all sounds serious, it’s not. This a very funny book that made me cackle and wince at the same time, so effective is it at skewering queer life. On walking into Fitzroy Pool, the narrator quips, “It was Speedos all the way down.” While it’s characters and setting are awfully recognisable, there is an uncanny, almost sci-fi sheen about the writing and dialogue that takes it into much stranger places, particularly in describing the many hues of the sky – the sun “dropped like a bath bomb, colours blew through the sky”. It reminded me of Deborah Levy, where carefully planted ideas detonate long after you’ve forgotten them, binding the narrative into a perfectly-contained whole.
Gay rating: 5/5 – to misquote Casino Royale, if all that was left of this book was its little finger, it would be gayer than pretty much everything else out there.