Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2022

Sweeney and the Bicycles (2022), by Philip Salom

After his foray into coastal Victoria in The Fifth Season, (2020, click here for all my reviews of this author’s novels) Philip Salom returns to inner urban Melbourne in his latest novel Sweeney and the Bicycles.  And as with the unforgettable characters of Waiting (2017) and The Returns (2019), Sweeney is peopled with a cast of misfits who resist easy judgement—yes, even the one who is an ageing standover man.

Sweeney is the central character, a divided man folded into a skinny man.  He is attending therapy with Dr Asha Sen for a traumatic bashing in prison which left him brain-damaged.  In the course of the novel, however, it becomes clear that the damage to his psyche was caused by his abusive father. Whose satirical choice of name for his only son is indicative of his contempt for the boy which spills over into breathtaking violence.  And cruelty: when the gift of a bike enables an emerging independence that this brutal father cannot control, he takes it away from Sweeney, thus triggering an ongoing obsession with stealing bicycles in adulthood.

The theft of Rose’s bike from outside Asha’s rooms is just one of the complications in Sweeney’s emerging relationship with Rose.  He is anxious about her reaction when she learns his criminal history, but he also fears her expectations.

One of the troubles we have as people, Dr Sen says, is we carry elevated expectations of others.  We ask too much of each other.  Not directly, just in our general sense of them showing loyalty and allegiance, and never changing. We’re greedy.  On top of everything that is good, we want more.  Feelings will change, there’s no stopping that.  Our egos have trouble with that.  We can feel let down. (p.355)

Dr Sen herself experiences this at the very beginning of the book.  She’s had knee surgery, and had some rudimentary expectations about her husband…

She waited in her hospital room for Bruce to ring back after her initial call to say she was out of the operating theatre, had rested and was now swinging along on crutches.  For him at the very least to text her, to see how she was recovering, ask what it was like now, etc, and to know if he should bring her anything.  Chocolates? Another book? (p.1)

The first contact between Sweeney and Rose was fleeting: it’s when Rose and her domineering sister Heather are on the tram and Heather tries flirting with Sweeney.  Did I mention that he’s good-looking, if not for the horrific S-shaped scar on the back of his head, courtesy of a prison thug called The Swat? He hides the scar with beanies and hats, and it’s a Panama hat much like the one in Rose’s bicycle basket that triggers Asha to accost Sweeney in the street…

Sweeney has a lot to hide.  His post-university years on a commune where he supplemented the group’s income with thefts from pharmacies.  His time in prison; the post-injury anxiety that isn’t well-controlled.  That he’s never had a job.  His divided self which expresses itself in two contrasting homes: the valuable terrace in Parkville left to him by his grandmother (where he hides the bikes), and the rooming house which he shares with a motley crew of eccentrics—ex-prisoners The Sheriff and Froggie, and Jim Smith who has trouble understanding and remembering things.

Salom’s eccentrics are described as losers in some commentary about Sweeney and the Bicycles but that’s not what they are.  Ok, they don’t have jobs or cars or much in the way of material possessions, and they have mannerisms and behaviours that are incompatible with middle-class respectability.  But they resist labelling.  They’re more than a share household in a rooming house, they’re a disparate bunch of people living successfully together despite their differences.  A dark sense of humour prevails in their conversations, and they band together to stare down the threat from a bunch of thugs who are a menacing presence in the story.

For Sweeney, whose alcoholic mother stood by and watched her husband’s brutality without intervening, this substitute family is protective and the rooming house is the home he never had.

Salom’s preoccupation with hi-tech surveillance is revealed through the contrasting characters of Rose and Asha Sen’s husband Bruce Leach.  Rose’s data gathering is benign, used to design routes for efficient pedestrian traffic management in places like train stations.  But Leach’s facial recognition technology (FRT) in the form of CCTV and drones — ostensibly for keeping us ‘safe’ from terrorists — is increasingly invasive, though people don’t know it. (Sweeney does: for his bicycle-theft operations he marks up his face with signs and symbols in a deliberate attempt to confuse the FRT so that he can’t be identified.)

I’ve only ever once seen a drone and that was when a kid and his father were experimenting with programming it down at the park. They had difficulty getting it off the ground.  But Salom provides some creepy examples of the abuse of surveillance technology. A drone swooping low over a back yard to snoop on a woman sunbathing; public ignorance about the ubiquitous use of new types of near invisible CCTV;  and in a pointed reference to a certain former federal Minister for Home Affairs, Salom depicts Asha and Bruce in heated disagreement about the use of this surveillance to clear middle class streets of ‘undesirables’.

What Asha does not know is that surveillance is being used to track down a stalker in the university environs, and that Bruce tampers with it when he suspects he knows who the stalker is.  And there’s something else that — like most of us —she doesn’t know:

Whether his good wife knew it or not, there is a surveillance more intrusive than anything in his own realm of AI.  His use of it is depressingly minor when, like the fear over 5G, the current software can do what people have long suspected: spy on people from their own mobiles.  AI that listens in, records, uses the phone camera to collect images of places and people without the owner ever realising. This software is spreading worldwide. (p.385)

Power — who has it, and how is it used — is a key theme in this impactful novel.  Power relations in prisons that have nothing to do with how its victims behave; the covert power of people monitoring surveillance systems; the political power that’s generated by Othering; the enforcement power of the criminal class; the terrifying power of parents over children; and the low-key power of subversive behaviour, for individuals living on the margins of society. Through the characterisation of Clifton, whose passive-aggressive alienation is reinforced by screen time and the extreme hostility of the dark web, Salom also challenges the naïveté of believing in the power of psychiatry to modify the behaviour of seriously disturbed individuals. Or (as The Sheriff learns to his cost) believing in the ‘safety’ parroted by politicians.

Salom’s novel does not provide all the answers.  Sweeney’s trajectory towards an anarchic kind of apathy is gradually revealed and then perhaps halted, and there are hints at reasons for a general lack of ‘belonging’ in the cast of characters, but the reader can only guess at why Clifton is the way he is.  This ambiguity is one of the strengths of the novel, IMO.  Though love and friendship can be a rebuttal of all that’s wrong in the ungenerous complexity of urban life, it’s only ever tentative and the open-ended conclusion of this novel is a refusal to provide a safe and comforting fantasy alternative.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth reviewed it for The Conversation too.

Author: Philip Salom
Title: Sweeney and the Bicycles
Cover design by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760996, pbk., 399 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. On my library list!


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