Comic’s life no barrel of laughs
Andrew McMillen These Things Happen By Greg Fleet Pan Macmillan, 334pp, $34.99
All through Greg Fleet’s memoir, the title is repeated like a mantra. Narrowly avoid being stabbed and mugged in a dank Edinburgh alley while trying to score heroin, after being recognised as an actor from Neighbours? These things happen. Willingly engage in an enthusiastic, one-off homosexual encounter with a friend while both under the influence of ecstasy? These things happen. Yell so loud and for so long at hitting a baby in a snowboarding video game that a concerned neighbour knocks on the door in an attempt to help the poor child? These things happen.
The intended effect is no doubt comedic — Fleet, after all, is one of Australia’s best-known stand-up comics, in addition to his work as an actor on screen and stage — but this repetition also lends a curious sense of determinism to his memoir. While the bold and uncompromising honesty the author displays is admirable, the mantra does rob him of some agency, as if he had no choice in how, exactly, these things happened to him.
This is not a particularly strong book in its writing or structure. The strength is embedded in the details and comic beats of Fleet’s storytelling, which veers between dark and light shades so frequently and unexpectedly that one never quite acclimatises to his wonky narration. The chapters are short, and time travel between Fleet’s distant memories and his present-day writing of the book while dirt poor at a sharehouse in Adelaide, trying to quit smoking cigarettes while toiling to amass the requisite 80,000 words so he can collect his next payment from the publisher.
This meta-narrative offers respite from the decidedly sordid tales from Fleet’s past, which is entwined with long-term drug addiction. He writes near the beginning: For all the interesting things that I’d done in my life, the thing that I’d done the longest was to pursue an insane and rampant heroin addiction: twice a day, $100 a time, $200 a day, $1400 a week (long gone are Lou Reed’s days of ‘‘$26 in my hand’’). I did this for thirty years. That’s longer than many of my friends have been alive. And a couple of million dollars.
The author seeks no pity for his decisions, which first were made in St Kilda as a young actor training at the National Institute of Dramatic Art and followed him around the world. As is often the case with those who have wronged others in pursuit of their poison, writing it all down is cathartic; an integral part of the atonement process. Fleet certainly does not emerge from These Things Happen covered in glory. If anything, the reader is likely to think less of him than before, especially near the end, when he admits to relapsing late last year and pawning several irreplaceable jewellery items owned by a friend who had entrusted him with house-sitting in her absence.
There’s nothing funny about this particular story, as Fleet readily admits. His behaviour in this instance was “criminal and disgusting”. This event is described in veiled terms at the book’s beginning and is outlined as the reason why he began writing this story. The author refers to it as “the hole”, which he has been dragging himself out of and then willingly jumping back into for more than half his life. By the end, he realises there are two options. There is the easy option of throwing himself back in yet again. “Do this enough times,” he writes, “and you come to know that you are the hole, and the hole is you.”
Or, instead, “man up and get real. Stop running.” Hence his decision to write These Things Happen, which is, above all, a lopsided recollection of the life of a funny man with a seemingly insatiable appetite for destruction. Humour is a constant companion on this journey: laugh-outloud moments crop up on every second page, though some of the jokes are crafted so sharply that if the reader doesn’t laugh at his misadventures and misfortune, they may cry. Both responses, I suspect, would please the author, who is as much a performer on the page as on stage.
Writing is hard work. Yet committing to print your worst moments for all to see, judge and perhaps learn from has to be even harder than usual. Seen in that light, publishing this book is a courageous and potentially foolhardy step in Fleet’s long career. His capacity for deception and his frequent requests to borrow money from anyone within earshot is wellknown among comics, and he’s painfully aware of how these behaviours reflect on him. For baring his soul so completely here, Fleet is to be commended, even if what he reveals is likely to repulse many readers. For him, the truism that honesty is the best policy at last holds true: after three decades of lies, his truth is at last exposed.
Greg Fleet seeks no pity for his decisions