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“He’d dropped to 50 kilos and when I hugged him I could feel his ribs. I spent the next few days wondering how long this skinny, fearless man could keep defying the odds.”

That complexity of vision illuminates the 36-year-old’s  first novel, City on Fire (Knopf), an epic of New York set in the mid-1970s,
a critical moment in the city’s history, and America’s. The 927-page book, which was optioned by Scott Rudin even before it sold for
a reported $2 million, is a kind of punk Bleak House, brimming with power brokers and anarchists, cops and journalists, rockers and wannabes. After all, a metropolis is made up not just of stone and steel but of stories: the dreams and delusions of private lives in close proximity, and the public mythologies that ignite them.

At the center are two storytellers: Samantha, or Sam, a Long Island wild child, the teenage author of a punk-music zine; and Mercer, an aspiring writer from the South who comes to the city to pen the great American novel, only to fall helplessly in love with an artist and musician with a few secrets, as well as track marks, up his sleeves. Their stories intersect one night in Central Park, when a high-profile crime transpires, and Mercer, black, gay, and in the wrong place at the wrong time, immediately becomes a suspect.

Surprise entry: Comedian and TV star Anh Do has a portrait among the finalists of the Archibald Prize.

“That’s a son’s painting of a dad that he worries he might not see again,” says Do.

Beyond a son’s concern for his ailing father, Do’s portrait tells a more complicated story of Tam’s alcoholism and abandonment of the family he rescued from strife-torn Vietnam.

Do has built an impressive comic career across television, stand-up and film; his sunny demeanour has featured on television programs including The Matty Johns Show, Pizza and his ongoing travelogue series Anh Does….

But that is a different side to the contemplative man reliving the turmoil caused by his father’s addiction. “He drank heavily and when I was 13 he left the family,” he says. “I didn’t see him for eight years and I hated him for a big part of my childhood just for not being there and making mum look after three kids on six bucks an hour.”

Anh Do’s portrait of his father.
It wasn’t until Do was 21 and studying law at the University of Technology, Sydney, that he decided to seek out his

It wasn’t until Do was 21 and studying law at the University of Technology, Sydney, that he decided to seek out his father, who was living in Melbourne. He recalls driving through the night for the reunion only to be confronted at the door of his father’s unit by a woman, barely older than Do, with a baby.

“And I figure, ‘Wow, I’ve got this half-brother’,” Do says. “To find that out is confronting.

“I thought to myself, I won’t hang around for long. But I’d driven from Sydney to Melbourne so I thought I’d have a quick bite and I’ll walk away and never come back. Obviously he’s moved on.

“‘Dad’, I said. ‘He’s cute. What’s his name’?”

His father’s reply: “Anh. I named him after you.”

That revelation was a bombshell for Do after so many years of hating his father. “I thought my father had forgotten about me,” he says. “But I realised that he missed me as much as I missed him.”

Do is sitting upstairs in the Illawarra coast home he has made with wife Suzanne and their four children – three-month-old daughter Summer and her older brothers, five-year-old Leon, Luc, 8 and Xavier, 10. Downstairs in a double garage is his studio, impeccably neat and organised with military precision. Four large heads – created with thick swathes of paint lathered on canvas like frosting on a cake – sit on easels around a large table covered in paint-splattered plastic.

Neatly-stacked tubs are filled with chef’s palette knives of varying length and lethalness. Do uses them to apply paint in quick, broad strokes. Stacks of heavy hardcover books about artists such as Rembrandt, Cy Twombly and Pete Doig fill one tabletop, while another is arranged with tins of oil paint. Light and the chill air seeps through sliding doors that look out on the ocean on this stormy winter’s day.

Upstairs, Do’s back is turned to the scenic vista of coastal cliffs and beach battered by furious seas as he reflects on his father. “Now that I have four kids, I realise you love your kids forever, no matter what,” he says. “You love your kids forever.”

Do admits his younger self found it difficult to understand his father’s actions. “He used to call my grandma every week to check on us,” he says. “And I said, ‘Why didn’t you come back?’

“And he said, ‘You guys were doing so well without me. I didn’t want to come back and have my drinking affect you guys’.”

Do has rebuilt a relationship with his father, who he says is now “my best mate in the whole world”.

“I realised when he’s not intoxicated he’s the best dad.”

Do told the story of his relationship with his father and the family’s arduous journey to Australia as boatpeople in his award-winning 2010 autobiography, The Happiest Refugee. Painting a portrait of his father brought back those memories and the feelings he experienced during those years of estrangement. He worked on the portrait in his garage studio, painting with music in the background. Each song took him back to his younger days.