Comic’s life no bar­rel of laughs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew McMillen is a Bris­bane-based free­lance jour­nal­ist and au­thor of Talk­ing Smack: Hon­est Con­ver­sa­tions About Drugs.

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

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