It’s Malcom Fraser’s Australia, and 17-year-old Nick Wheatley is fresh out of high school and on the eve of beginning his new job at the local McDonald’s. But when his best friend and next-door neighbour’s father is killed in a hit-and-run, any innocence he has been clinging to disappears. ‘It was suburbia,’ the narrator tells us, ‘the kingdom of ordinary gods and monsters.’
Womersley’s energetic crime thriller is filled with memorable and comic characters. The violent drug dealer’s boyfriend, Stretch. The suspicious psychic. Nick’s drunken, pathetic father. His morose, snide sister. Womersley’s nostalgic Australian suburbia is drenched in marijuana smoke and constant, unsettling danger. The novel has significant flaws, but Womersley’s spark for funny dialogue and well-paced action makes Ordinary Gods and Monsters incredibly fun to read.
Womersley’s literary career has taken readers to 17th century France, featuring a family on the run from the plague and 90s Melbourne with a visual artist and former addict. A pivot to a teenage protagonist is less surprising than the novel’s attempt to rest in the crime thriller genre. Womersley’s work echoes a strand of prevalent nostalgic crime novels with male coming of age stories: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton or Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. But Womersley’s world is more conservative and his characters are more intrinsically comic and chaotic.
The lead character, Nick, has all the makings of a young adult hero. His self-identity is unstable, he has a strained relationship with his divorcing parents and he lusts after his neighbour Marion, who’s permanently friend-zoned him. He spends most of his time stoned. All of this is perfectly fine, but Nick’s passivity ultimately makes him unremarkable and pokes holes in Womersley’s craft.
Far from an enthusiastic (or intelligent) detective on the hit-and-run case, Nick has a habit of stumbling onto witnesses and evidence by coincidence alone. He hides in conveniently placed bushes more than once to overhear essential conversations. In one scene, he finds evidence simply by looking through a hole in the fence where he’s urinating. It’s ultimately a frustrating device that undermines so much of the colourful world-building that Wormersley creates.
Wormersley’s opening pages have the first person narration give a vivid description of the small foundry near Nick’s house, constantly belching out smoke. Nick’s father believes the gas is to blame for all the sorrows that befall their neighbourhood. Nick is even more nihilistic.
Most of the tragedies that befall us are the result of plain old bad luck or simpler, more human frailties: accidents, poor judgement, greed, untended desires. The many vicissitudes of fortune.
This thesis is proven throughout the novel, with Nick stumbling upon tragedy and into the case of his dead neighbour. The neighbour’s daughter and Nick’s best friend, Marion, lacks the depth given to the broader cast of characters.
It’s a shame, as Marion is vital to the plot, but appears to change her mood and motivation in an instant, and it’s her who ultimately drives Nick to become more active in the case. But the reader is still left unsure as to why the hero of the story is Nick, and not Marion, setting out on a story of revenge against her father’s killer.
Womersley has a gift for dialogue, with scenes ripping past with genuinely funny dark humour. Occasional slips, such as Nick not speaking like a teenage boy (‘God, I was such a selfish, thoughtless dope!’) or characters stumbling into lengthy and expository monologues without reason, are all forgivable. The characters are colourful and entertaining, and the mystery just intriguing enough to drive the reader forward.
Ordinary Gods and Monsters is an easy and fun beach read, perfect for summer.
Ordinary Gods and Monsters, Chris Womersley
Publication Date: 29 August 2023