Sex and drugs and on a roll

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

Gen­uine can­dour is one of the most dif­fi­cult emo­tions to cap­ture in any form of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion, writ­ing in­cluded. There seems lit­tle point in com­mit­ting to write a mem­oir if not to tell the whole truth and noth­ing less.

This is es­pe­cially so for young writ­ers, whose am­bi­tion and ur­gency to im­press by shar­ing their in­ner­most se­crets has be­come some­thing of a cliche in an era of on­line ‘‘over­shar­ing’’. Walk­ing the line be­tween tire­some navel-gaz­ing and in­sight­ful, re­ward­ing rev­e­la­tions is tough, but with his de­but book Syd­ney writer Joel Meares suc­ceeds with style.

In his job as arts edi­tor of The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, 30-year-old Meares acts as a cul­tural gate­keeper, de­cid­ing who and what is wor­thy of cov­er­age. In We’re All Go­ing to Die, his as­tute edit­ing skills are on dis­play across 10 per­sonal es­says that il­lu­mi­nate his early life and for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences as a young adult. There are oc­ca­sional asides to his pro­fes­sional ca­reer but, by and large, Meares uses the book as a ve­hi­cle to ex­am­ine his in­ter­twined paths as a writer, son, friend, hor­ror-film en­thu­si­ast and gay man.

It is on this last path that he is at his strong­est, through two cen­tral chap­ters that draw the book into stark fo­cus. The first con­cerns Meares slowly com­ing to terms with his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in his 20s, af­ter deny­ing it con­stantly through­out his child­hood and ado­les­cence. One sec­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, pro­voked a sharp in­take of breath, when Meares writes that he de­nied his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­cause … be­ing gay is some­thing you grow up know­ing is bad. It’s not just the ‘‘that’s so gay’’ shit of play­grounds, it’s that be­ing gay, the very idea of it, is in­grained as some­thing ‘‘other’’ — it’s still the go-to pres­sure point when you re­ally want to take a young bloke out right at the knees.

I’m sad to say that th­ese sen­tences rang true for me, as some­one a few years younger than Meares who has only rel­a­tively re­cently be­come aware of the grav­ity of th­ese types of in­sults. It is in­sights such as this for which We’re All Go­ing to Die is strongly rec­om­mended, as Meares is clearly a man with some­thing to say and am­ple abil­ity with which to say it. The chap­ter that im­me­di­ately fol­lows, ti­tled So Is Dad, con­cerns his fa­ther’s com­ing out and it is beau­ti­fully and sen­si­tively writ­ten.

Else­where, Meares writes of his brief but in­tense en­thu­si­asm for ec­stasy and co­caine. “In Sub­way sand­wich terms, I’ve never been a six­inch man — it’s al­ways been a foot­long or noth­ing,” he writes. “With jalapenos.” This dal­liance cul­mi­nates in panic at­tacks and sev­eral vis­its to the emer­gency room, capped with a stern warn­ing from med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als that some peo­ple just can’t han­dle their drugs. “Drugs scared me once be­cause they were ‘bad’; they scare me now be­cause they are bad for me,” he concludes.

The es­say on drug use is rooted in a fea­ture story Meares wrote years ago about Syd­ney’s co­caine scene, and the same is true of his chap­ter on parure­sis, or ‘‘bash­ful blad­der’’ syn­drome, which grew out of a 2012 ar­ti­cle for Good Week­end mag­a­zine. In that story, Meares proved him­self a will­ing comic foil for a se­ri­ous topic by ad­mit­ting he had long strug­gled to uri­nate any­where but in a closed toi­let cu­bi­cle. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing, this psy­cho­log­i­cal quirk that caused many men em­bar­rass­ment and in­ner pain when faced with shared uri­nal sit­u­a­tions, such as at mu­sic fes­ti­vals, yet Meares han­dles it with good hu­mour and grace.

Slightly more em­bar­rass­ing than be­ing un­able to piss in the pres­ence of other men is the act of hug­ging a pony in north­ern NSW and un­know­ingly pick­ing up a tick that bur­rows its way into the back of one’s skull, to­wards the brain­stem, and breeds. This sim­ple trans­ac­tion — a hug for a tick — be­comes near-fa­tal for Mel­bourne writer Liam Pieper, who con­tracted a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion that dis­abled the lymph nodes on one side of his body, par­tially paralysing him and com­ing dan­ger­ously close to en­ter­ing his brain. This took place while Pieper was vis­it­ing the cannabis coun­ter­cul­tural hub of Nimbin. He was on as­sign­ment as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, re­search­ing a story for an un­named “Very Im­por­tant Mag­a­zine”. He ended up fil­ing a 15,000-word story that was three times longer than the mag­a­zine re­quested, writ­ten un­der the dis­ori­ent­ing ef­fects of the arach­nid’s neu­ro­tox­ins. The “tick-ad­dled gib­ber­ish” was spiked by his edi­tor and the writer nearly died.

This se­quence of events isn’t funny. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But the way Pieper con­tex­tu­alises it is very funny in­deed. This open­ing es­say, Catch­ing the Spirit, is one of four that com­prise Mis­takes were Made, a breezy and com­pelling read that ex­hibits Pieper’s hi­lar­i­ous, dark way of ob­serv­ing and in­ter­pret­ing the world around him.

The cen­tral nar­ra­tive thread through th­ese four sto­ries is the writ­ing, pub­li­ca­tion and pro­mo­tion of Pieper’s mem­oir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, re­leased last year, where he wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ences as a teenage drug dealer, in­clud­ing the time he sold cannabis to his par­ents. “What I didn’t un­der­stand then is that the first an­gle to a story to come out tends to be the one that stays around,” he writes. “My folks got a lit­tle pot off me once, and that would be the defin­ing nar­ra­tive of my life for the fore­see­able fu­ture.”

With this lit­tle book, Pieper builds a strong case for re­defin­ing his nar­ra­tive post-mem­oir: the other es­says con­cern con­trast­ing racial prej­u­dices in Australia and the US, be­ing stopped at Cus­toms by Los An­ge­les air­port and queried on his drug his­tory, and his brief adop­tion of a dog named Id­iot Ge­of­frey. His writ­ing is elec­tric: charged with mean­ing and en­er­gised by sur­pris­ing comedic turns. Be­tween Meares and Pieper, there’s not a trace of tire­some navel-gaz­ing; in­stead, true can­dour abounds.

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