Interview by PATRICK CARLYON
reg Fleet has got onstage of late to crack jokes about the father who gave him little but a surname and bad memories. Bill Fleet faked his death when his son was 10, only to turn up at a real estate agency across town under a different name. When Fleet’s mother confronted him there, he denied his identity. Cornered, Bill Fleet dumped his new family and briefly returned to his old one – until he fled for good and returned to the United States.
Now aged 55, Fleet long ago concluded that his father was a sociopath. Bill Fleet never apologised to his kids, paid for their upbringing or sent birthday cards. When Fleet told a friend a couple of years ago that his father had passed away (for real this time), the friend replied: “Are you sure?”
His odd upbringing explains why Fleet, himself a father but also a recovering heroin and ice addict, is obsessed with family dynamics. It’s also a starting point for his first novel, The Good Son, a quirky jaunt that contrasts with his 2015 memoir These Things Happen.
Fleet is no model of goodness – a missing lower tooth, and his husky voice, attest to a life lived hard. As do his
frequent catch-ups with daughter Sunday, now 16, and candid revelation that it’s unclear who of the pair parents who. “She takes after her mother and so she doesn’t have any of my bad behavioural traits,” Fleet tells Stellar. “I don’t have to deal with that, which is great, because that would be hellish.”
Fleet’s run-ins with societal norms bestow him with a talisman status for the comedic touchstones of drugs, despair and dysfunction. He’s done 26 Melbourne Comedy Festivals and has performed Shakespeare, starred on Neighbours and was a regular on Good News Week in the ’90s.
He’s fine company, quick with a (verbal) line and curious, too, in ways the well-known and self-obsessed forget to be. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of quality television. He shows off a stillfresh dog bite, a memento of a recent Asian tour, and boasts new glasses, sans arms, with childlike pride. There is no disguising his chinks, yet despite his progress he worries. “I’m conscious of not becoming an alcoholic to replace being a drug addict, which is a cliché and definitely worse,” he says. “I took two days off drinking, I don’t know whether I’d ever done that. I was surprised by how easy it was.”
He vapes, but when he meets Stellar in Melbourne’s St Kilda, he produces a pack of smokes. He’s a product of share homes and a nomadic life, which may be why he sounds a lot younger than his years.
His novel opens with a son who misses his mother’s death, an idea Fleet conjured several years before a planned visit with Sunday to his own mother in her aged-care home. The night before, he got a call – his mother had passed away.
The book is breezy, in keeping with how a reviewer described a recent stage show of Fleet’s: “seemingly unshackled from the dead weight of his dark past”. It is also a clear product of Fleet’s preoccupation with the notion that everyone has “two families” – the one you’re born with and the one you choose. The bonds forged in the novel are more binding than the blood kinships; tender and kindly as opposed to cynical and manipulative.
“The whole idea is of friendship and what friendship is,” Fleet says. “It was nice to break away from my own life and write something that was made up. It was nice to write something that had an innocence to it.” Fleet initially imagined the story as a movie or series. He has cast characters in his mind – there’s room for Judi Dench, Julia Blake and Joanna Lumley. He, himself, wants to play his favourite character, Cash Driveway, unless Ben Mendelsohn, who has been known to play to excess in the past, took the role. “We used to live together,” Fleet says. “At that stage, we were appalling for each other.”
He has more book ideas, though which of the dozens bouncing around his head will make it to the page is unclear. In any case, his ideal is more writing – a book a year, a play and a film or “TV thing” based on the previous year’s book – as well as one-off stand-up gigs in each capital city. Constant touring, Fleet says, is a young person’s pursuit. It’s not for him anymore, now that he’s “healthy” (read: drug-free) and doesn’t want to be away from Sunday.
They catch up several times a week. “My ex did all the heavy lifting [early on]. Between the road and the drugs, I was kind of like a fond uncle: roll in and tell a few stories and drink a bottle of wine,” he says. Things are different now, and he has an honest relationship with Sunday, who worried about him in the past but put on a brave face, anyway.
“A couple of years ago, she took me aside and gave it to me. I was really surprised and really pleased, actually. When she told me how she felt, I was shocked, but in a way: ‘Oh, of course she’s aware of it.’ It was great she felt she could do that. She got to a point that she felt she could be honest with me; that made me be honest with her. I’ll try not to but, if I do, I’ll try not to lie about it.”
He had learnt the lessons of his own father, he says, and was careful to avoid making the same mistakes. He just made lots of other mistakes instead. The Good Son by Greg Fleet (Penguin, $29.99) is out tomorrow.
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