McGirr takes virtually every detour possible and in doing so seems to suggest that life’s journey is at its most interesting when one strays from the central path. It is in the towns and rest stations that McGirr encounters individuals with interesting stories to tell – stories that give McGirr’s narrative its essential variety and ‘life’. McGirr’s interest is not only in what lies off to the side of the ‘main road’ in a literal sense. He is attracted by the lives of ‘ordinary’ people who are not famous or even particularly successful. Even when relating incidents from his life as a priest he enjoys telling stories that would otherwise never appear in print: attending the wrong wedding reception; seeing a bride answer a mobile phone.
He does occasionally refer to famous or powerful people; even here, though, his preference is for the little known incident over the important, nation-shaping decision – such as John Curtin’s midnight pot of tea in a Gundagai café. In short, McGirr suggests that, although the highway itself is valuable, we must not forget or neglect places and lives that the highway bypasses, for these too constitute the ‘life-blood’ of the nation. And similarly, although the nation’s central story or history is important – that of, say, the Anzacs, the explorers, the two world wars – the stories that lie off to the side of the historical mainstream are equally worth knowing, are equally valuable.
As narrator and author of this narrative, McGirr has a lot of control over how he depicts himself. Indeed, ‘the power of the person who gets to tell the story’ (p.19) is considerable, as he notes when discussing Hovell’s power over Hume in that regard. McGirr is depicted as a fairly affable, if occasionally bumbling figure whose decision to leave the Jesuit order after twenty-one years is a life-changing one. The decision prompts him to experience a number of ‘firsts’: he buys property in Gunning; embarks on an intimate relationship with Jenny whom he subsequently marries and has children with; and decides to travel on a bike down the Hume Highway and document his progress. McGirr might come across as something of an ‘everyman’ figure but his life-experiences mark him as someone rather eclectic (unusual). McGirr displays a capacity for droll humour throughout the narrative, and also a willingness to reflect deeply on his experiences and those of others. His reflective tendencies see him discuss his struggle to sincerely uphold the vow of obedience when he was a member of the Jesuit order (p.173), and also his feeling of being alone when he first joined the order (p.229). It might be argued that McGirr is depicted as someone who thinks a little too much: the discussion of his dilemma about buying orange juice with the money allocated to new Jesuits for ‘emergencies’ (p.228) is an example. Fortunately, his capacity for reflection does not make the text too ponderous. McGirr’s accounts of his developing relationship with Jenny and his self-deprecatory asides about his weight (p.31, p.98), snoring (p.227), age (p.32) and tendency to lecture others (p.142) depict him as a jovial, likeable bloke.
Bypass, a hybrid work of creative non-fiction is a memoir, travel story, social history, romance and road story. The literary devices used in Bypass enliven and enrich the writing with sparkling wit. For example: ‘Hovell had been a naval captain. On land, however, he was all at sea.’(p 19) ‘They were like fishermen who were prepared to dam their own river rather than let it starve them.’(p 48) ‘A roadhouse is a place where everything that can’t be eaten has been laminated, and not all the food can be eaten.’(p 66) ‘Guerrilla warfare is the opposite of God who, for some unknown reason, makes his or her absence felt even when present.’(p 81) ‘I came to Gunning to hide, but people kept finding me.’(p 97) ‘Sturt went blind trying to see what none had seen before.’(p 170)...