Levin’s God, by Roger Wells, a short review

Roger Wells
FACP, $29.95pb, 462pp, 1 92073 131 8

LEVIN’S GOD is a novel, written by Roger Wells, and published in 2004, by Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and it is a classic coming of age story, charting the personal journey of the protagonist, Levin Hoffman, as his life unfolds, from late seventies tram conductor in Melbourne, into lead singer for a successful rock-band, and then onto Thailand for his next chapter.

The novel begins in 1977, and it is written in the first person. It uses a surprisingly confident (remember it is a first novel) narrative style, which moves effortlessly between interludes of existential angst, peppered with pithy and often amusing ruminations, and non-stop action.

This book is the re-telling of a spiritual and emotional journey, and it is remarkably open about the characters’ successes, failings and excesses. It is relentless in describing unfolding events, and carries the reader forward, in a seemingly unstoppable narrative. This is a book which is engaging, because the characters are open, and vulnerable, and we care about what happens to them.

There is an anarchic vibe which sits well with the time, and the setting. Young men and women in dead-end jobs, yearning for meaning, and success. Melbourne in the late 70s and early 80s was undergoing huge changes. The inner suburbs were changing. There was a creative and cultural surge happening, and some of what we might now call ‘the disruptors’ were emerging.

Students, artists, musicians were invading the old working class suburbs, often causing disruption and resentment. Gentrification raised rents, and the old sureties were challenged by the arrival of, and the lifestyle choices of, the newcomers. Wells’ book catches that shift in mood, but he wastes no time contemplating the change. His characters are rushing toward their destiny.

This was the time when the movie Dogs in Space appeared, when Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip shocked the city, when the artists from Roar Studios took control of their own exhibitions. It was an exciting time in Melbourne.

Roger Wells is the perfect travel guide. He studied art at RMIT, and after several dead-end jobs, tried his hand in the music scene. After early struggles, he ended up leading the band Little Heroes, which enjoyed considerable success between 1980 and 1984. Although the book is a novel, it is fuelled by insider’s knowledge, and the battles and personalities are authentically drawn.

The closing chapters of the book sees the action move to Thailand. The narrative does not falter; it ramps up, if possible, and although new characters are introduced, its force is undiminished, and it ends on a hopeful, if ambiguous note.

With the wisdom of hindsight, some of the introspective musings, and a sexual encounter or two are overblown. Notwithstanding these moments, and they are few, the writing is sure, the journey is documented, the history of a city in flux is spot-on, and the characters’ trajectory is believable, and engaging.

This is a first rate Bildungsroman, or ‘coming of age’ novel, with the added bonus of being a faithful record of Melbourne, and I think a worthy companion to Monkey Grip.

Levin’s God is available as an e-book, but it is difficult to find as a physical book. I would suggest a call to Fremantle Arts Press, demanding a re-print. I only lend my copy to people who leave a deposit. (I’m joking, but I mean it.)

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