It was at what passes for the Algonquin Round Table (look it up) of Australian motorcycling, also known as the Lemmings MC Literary Appreciation and Book Burning Sub-Committee, that the drunken question was raised: “Does Boris Mihailovic’s new book At the Altar of the Road Gods speak to the human condition?” This set off a lively round of debate and fist-fighting, one consequence of which was this review.
‘Speaking to the human condition’ is commonly regarded as a mark of art and, given Boris’ book sells in the ‘True Crime’ section at airport bookshops, the question may have missed the point. However, one should not too hastily leap to judgement, even though that is the response that this author and his two books (My Mother Warned Me About Blokes Like Me came first) tend to evoke in others.
There is a bit in Boris’ recent book to shock and, more, to outrage the more refined souls among us. Boris is his own primary subject and he tends to live life in a fulsome, somewhat over-the-top manner.
His personal stories are, therefore, often compelling and, because he has a wry sense of humour, regularly amusing: a fair few bits are laugh-out-loud funny. They also reflect a commitment to ‘writing’.
If Boris tells stories from his iconoclastic and occasionally hardcore life, he also reflects the times in which he lives.
Becoming a young surveyor just in time to be replaced by computers was a case in point. Transitioning to delivering telegrams by motorbike seemed like the ideal job, given he was paid to ride a (small) motorcycle – on one occasion from Sydney to Melbourne. That job, too, was just in time for the computer age.
But what Boris’ writing is centrally about is his love affair with motorcycles. That motorcycles are an essentially trivial pursuit would tend to vindicate the view that Boris’ writing does not speak to the human condition.
But, then, who has lived and breathed motorcycles not to find many deep lessons in excitement, solitude, comradeship, selfreliance, expectation, fear, courage, the ennui of the long open road, passion and purpose? Perhaps if we understand Boris’ book not so much as tales about depravity and outrage, of life lived on the ‘pirate ship’ of one’s life, there may be glimpses of those deeper qualities my critical if unsober brothers had so churlishly disputed.
In 1778, a prudish woman observed frostily on the debauchery of the evening before: ‘I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves?’ One of the great men of English letters, Dr Samuel Johnson, replied: ‘I wonder, madam, that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ Boris did, and perhaps still occasionally does, make a beast of himself, and he writes about it, generally very well and quite amusingly. Though often hidden in his writing also seem to lie deeper, lingering doubts, as those
which inhabit us all, addressed by the quality of his excess.
It may be, then, in his own way, Boris does address questions of the human condition, and in so doing has carved out a small niche for himself in ‘writing’.
In the meantime, if you happen to be in an airport contemplating a long flight, At the Altar of the Road Gods is about the best entertainment that is likely to be on offer. That is probably the least of reasons why you might want to read it.
AVAILABILITY: All good book stores