Sweeney and the Bicycles

Transit Lounge, 2022

The scar on the back of Sweeney’s head is shaped like an S. He is obsessed with the beauty of bicycles, which he steals after painting his face in astonishing shapes and patterns.

Asha Sen is the psychiatrist he begins to see for sessions. Then he meets sisters Rose and Heather, two look-alike women who’d rather be different.

Written with warmth and humour, this captivatingly original novel opens us up to an intimate world of marvellous characters and unexpected developments. Trauma is balanced by the joys and weirdness of everyday life. Friendship and family just may be found in the unlikeliest of places.

‘He writes with such warmth; indeed, there is much affection on the pages, between the author and his characters, between the characters themselves, and between the author and his readers.’ The Canberra Times

Praise for Sweeney and the Bicycles

Philip Salom challenges us to re-evaluate notions of identity in an age where algorithms predominate in his latest work, Sweeney and the Bicycles.

Melbourne radio 3CR Interview with David McLean, October 2022 

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…

…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.

Lisa Hill – ANZ LitLovers, December 2022

In Sweeney and the Bicycles, he returns to themes that have woven their way through much of his fiction: identity and selfhood, family and friendship, damage and healing, unlooked-for and unlikely middle-aged love…

… The novel explores other aspects of AI and its implications and potential: data analysis, social media, spying drones. Sweeney is the sworn enemy of this technology and spends time riding around at night, in a disguise that includes some elaborate deco­ration and painting of his face, blacking out surveillance cameras with a paintbrush. Other more illegal and less ninja-like activities in his past have included the stealing of drugs, which is how he ended up in jail, and of bicycles, which seems an obsession and a sort of bliss. In protracted and detailed conversations about the bicycle thievery, Asha finally helps him to get to the bottom of it.

In this as in Salom’s previous novels, the narrative voice and its world view are mostly warm, generous, and forgiving, but there’s one clear exception: the use of AI for surveillance and other exercises of manipulation and power is clearly, even terrifyingly, explored and condemned…

Kerryn Goldsworthy, ABR November 2022

With its lovingly rendered characters and sharp aphoristic prose, Sweeney and the Bicycles is an enjoyable novel. It moves at a leisurely pace; indeed, it moves at the pace of a bicycle.
Most of the story transpires in the register of mild satire, particularly the sections that focus on the lovable losers in the rooming house. The life of this assemblage of misfits resembles the rough and tumble underworld of Robert G. Barrett’s Les Norton crime novels. The one thing missing, though, is a detective who might provide an ordering sense of mission to the haphazard incidents…

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Review in The Conversation

Philip Salom’s latest novel, Sweeney and the Bicycles, is about a man who collects bicycles. This is not, however, a novel about a Lycra-clad, hyper-masculine cycling devotee. Sweeney is a “bicycle romantic”. He prefers brightly coloured fixed-gear bikes, the type that often come with a basket. He likes riding these “beautiful” bikes through the streets of Melbourne’s Parkville when it is coloured by autumn as if by “a French Impressionist”. Sweeney is also a thief. He wears makeup designed to confound the algorithms of surveillance cameras. And the bikes he rides are stolen…

… Does Salom resolve the tension between playfulness and seriousness? Does he labour some of his dialogue? Did the novel have to be quite so long? Such doubts are all part of this weird and wonderful ride.

Maria Takolander, Review in The Saturday paper

The sixth novel by Miles Franklin-shortlisted author Philip Salom is an endearing, exquisitely observed story involving a fascinating cast of interlinked characters who keep encountering each other seredipitously and finding a semblance of family in one another. There’s Asha, a precise psychiatrist with excellent powers of deduction but a personal life mired in crisis. There’s the debonaire Sweeney, a compulsive bike thief and a former petty criminal. There are the intelligent sisters Rose and Heather, too alike to be mere sisters but not alike enough to be twins. And there’s the Sheriff, a hardened man with a heart of gold.Suffused with this detail, this propulsive read delivers a world where everything, down to the caprices of the weather, is described expansively and evocatively.

Readings Bookshop, 2022 Summer Reading Guide