Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography Of Sydney, by John Birmingham (Random House)

Solitary, nasty, brutish and short. An earlier “Leviathan”, by Thomas Hobbes, famously characterised the natural state of man thus; and John Birmingham applies the phrase to the lives of the Georgian criminal classes that poured into Sydney in its white settler days. As with much in this book, the phrase isn’t quite right – nasty, yes, a lot of them; brutish, certainly; and it’s true that in general they didn’t live long. But, as Birmingham’s own narrative eloquently conveys, these unpromising immigrants were anything but solitary: the teeming London alleys from whence they came, the cramped and foul quarters aboard ship, and the rambunctious city they made their own, all made for a seething, unsavoury, energising stew of humanity that, for all its shortcomings, was relentlessly communal.

Birmingham’s “Leviathan” is a chaotic mess of a book. Ostensibly “the unauthorised biography of Sydney” (who, one wonders, would one approach for authorisation?), it is really about whatever Birmingham feels like writing about – which might be El Niño weather patterns, bushfires, the stupidity and bigotry of Pauline Hanson and Co., or, recurrently, his fascinating self.

His fulsome acknowledgements at the front of the book (concluding with “I luvs yooz all”) provide an early warning of a tone that veers loonily from the adolescent to the cynically world-weary, from the almost-scholarly to the naïvely partisan. And it’s a big book, but not in more ways than one. In the words of one reviewer, “Leviathan” is “sprawling” (that is, lacks focus), “monstrous” (goes on too long) and “epic” (goes on too long).

In the gonzo school of journalism, the observer is ever-present, inseparable from the observed, often obnoxiously so. Subtlety isn’t the point. What can make someone like Hunter S. Thompson interesting is the quality of the observation, the unexpected, telling detail. Birmingham, on the other hand, darts all over the place, and though you never know what he’s going to talk about next, you know that he’ll make it sound just like what he’s talked about before.

“To peer deeply into this ghost city,” he writes, “the one lying beneath the surface, is to understand that Sydney has a soul and that it is a very dark place indeed.” What is this sentence really about? Sydney’s dark soul? Or John Birmingham’s incomparably penetrating eye?

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets