Sunday, 27 July 2008

Bypass (2004), is Michael McGirr's chronicle of a trip by bicycle from Sydney to Melbourne.

He starts alone, having recently left the priesthood due to misgivings about his qualifications. He felt that a celibate man could not give advice to those in need.

But he does not end alone. Instead of the copy of Anna Karenina he finds solace and companionship in the arms of a woman, Jenny. Jenny is an ex-dancer who owns a better bike than Michael.

Riding a bike on the Hume Highway provides plenty of food for thought. And although McGirr had left the priesthood when the book starts, he does not abandon all of the Catholic Church's major tropes.

Most of the book's sections start with passages about the famous celebrity runner Cliff Young, an elderly man from country Victoria who ran between the cities in the mid 1980s. Young was on television. I remember him.

McGirr couples this event with stories from the notes kept by the explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hilton Hovell. Making up the trinity of narratives that form the book's keystone is McGirr's changing preferences in terms of the opposite sex.

He settles on flesh-and-blood Jenny over fictional Anna Karenin. It seems to be a bargain, for McGirr learns to accommodate another person in his life. This provides a centre around which his astonishingly fecund mind can profitably turn.

McGirr's main premise is that it is possible to be happy with very little. And in this sense he shows that leaving a religious order doesn't eradicate the religious impulse from the man.

In fact, much of the book's charm lies in its aphoristic structure. The short chapters, each headed by the words of a bumper sticker noted during his journey, are something like lay psalms.

And while McGirr celebrates the simple life, he reveals by telling tales out of the past that he has had a crisis of faith and it took the form of intolerance. This, I think, is why he left the priesthood.

He did not suffer fools gladly. This is an excellent qualification for a writer, but a poor one for a priest, so McGirr has chosen his new profession wisely. A priest who cannot suffer fools is like a farmer who shoots members of his flock if they stray.

A wise farmer buys a sheepdog to fetch them back into the fold.

McGirr displays a fine touch with both poetry and humour. This is a wonderful book for the afflicted - in other words, it is suitable for anyone at all - because it displays a man's humility before his better self. McGirr has found a way to forgive himself for his own weaknesses.

To do this he must inspect the world with a grave and careful eye. So he combines the acuity of the artist with the patience of a convent. He also possesses a just disposition, and pays keen attention to detail.

I suspect that some of these chapters took quite some time to assemble, given the amount of factual detail many contain.

The Hume Highway has found a suitable chronicler. It is the first highway of our common dreaming and, as such, deserves respect. If only so that we can make others not like it, but better.

Hume and Hovell set off in the third decade of the 19th century. By the end of the century, Melbourne would be bigger than Sydney, despite the fact that the main northward avenue out of the southern city is called Sydney Road.

Sydney has no analogue of Sydney Road. Sydney is Australia's Rome, to which all roads eventually lead.

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