Hon­est re­ac­tion to al­co­hol’s grip on our youth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew McMillen

Wasted: A Story of Al­co­hol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane By El­speth Muir Text, 216pp, $29.99

One re­cent evening while walk­ing home af­ter din­ner and drinks with some col­leagues, I came across a young man who was passed out, face­down, on a thin strip of grass be­side a busy street in in­ner-city Brisbane. Re­mov­ing my ear­phones, I greeted him and asked if he needed help or if I could call him a taxi. On wak­ing from his slum­ber, he slurred that he was fine, and be­gan mak­ing a call on his phone. Sat­is­fied he was semi-co­her­ent, I bid him farewell and good luck. By the time I had walked to the cor­ner and looked back, the young man was ly­ing face­down once again.

I thought about him a lot while read­ing El­speth Muir’s Wasted, a book whose pages are prac­ti­cally soaked in the boozy cul­ture that de­fines the lives — or at least the week­ends — of many young Aus­tralians. What is it that com­pels us to con­sume so much al­co­hol? This is the cen­tral ques­tion that en­er­gises Muir through­out her mem­oir, which be­gins with the death of her younger brother, Alexan­der, in 2009.

Alexan­der liked to drink, just like his sis­ter. One night in late 2009, just a few hours af­ter com­plet­ing his fi­nal uni­ver­sity exam for the year, he drank through the night, even af­ter his friends had gone home. He had a habit of drink­ing to the point of black­out, where the cam­era in his brain would stop record­ing mem­o­ries, and he would find him­self wak­ing up in strange places. Once, on the morning of his 20th birth­day, Alexan­der woke up on the bank of the Brisbane River, be­neath man­groves and a wooden walk­way, un­sure of how he got there.

On that night in late 2009, Alexan­der Muir made his way to the Story Bridge, a pop­u­lar spot for sui­cides. He took off his shirt and thongs, and re­moved his phone and wal­let from his pock­ets, leav­ing them on the walk­way. Then he climbed the short bar­rier and fell 30m

to his death, aged 21. When his body was found a few days later, his blood al­co­hol con­tent read­ing was 0.238, nearly five times the le­gal limit for driv­ers.

This is where his sis­ter’s book be­gins, with this ex­tra­or­di­nary sen­tence: “It was hot when Alexan­der was buried, on one of those low Brisbane morn­ings in Novem­ber when you might have scooped a fist­ful of blue from the sky if you’d stretched an arm out.”

There is an easy con­fi­dence to Muir’s prose, which above all ex­hibits a per­cep­tive eye for de- tail, where cliche is all but ab­sent. I loved vivid im­agery such as this:

When I am maudlin, I imag­ine the long, dirty, lick­ing river, which coils like a snake on hot sand through the fatty sub­urbs along its wa­ter­line, tasted my brother that morning, but was thwarted be­fore it could suck him right in. It waited a year, watch­ing, flick­ing its sun­lit scales, lay­ing open the prom­ise of soft depths on dark even­ings; then, early one morning, his cu­rios­ity drove him close again, and it ate him.

Writ­ten across sev­eral years, Wasted uses Alexan­der’s death as a nar­ra­tive point on which to pivot a lens that zooms out to ex­am­ine broader Aus­tralian youth cul­ture, as well as zoom­ing in on the au­thor her­self to de­scribe the many foibles and joys that have been ex­pe­ri­enced with the anes­thetis­ing ef­fects of al­co­hol cours­ing through her blood­stream.

Deeply per­sonal and un­flinch­ingly hon­est, Muir’s de­but book is among the best long-form ex­plo­rations of how and why some Aus­tralians drink al­co­hol to ex­cess. High So­bri­ety, by Mel­bourne-via-Scot­land jour­nal­ist Jill Stark, was a su­perb en­try into this canon when it was pub­lished in 2013. But Wasted is even more in­volved than Stark’s book be­cause this au­thor has been mar­i­nat­ing in this cul­ture since her birth. Its chap­ters deal with sex­ual as­sault, vi­o­lence, men­tal ill­ness, reg­u­la­tion and youth-led social move­ments that seek to stem the tide of get­ting wasted just be­cause it’s what young Aus­tralians are ex­pected to do.

It is an im­per­fect work; there is some need­less rep­e­ti­tion, and a few of the shorter chap­ters feel un­der­de­vel­oped and ex­tra­ne­ous. As an al­ready slim ti­tle, its im­pact could have been strength­ened fur­ther by some ju­di­cious cut­ting. But, over­all, it is a strik­ing work and among the strong­est de­but books I have read. The fi­nal two para­graphs are breath­tak­ing.

Muir’s peers will read and re­spond to this work be­cause she does not sani­tise her words; for in­stance, page two de­scribes her brother’s “soggy body — fresh from the re­frig­er­a­tor — pick­led in em­balm­ing flu­ids, al­co­hol and river wa­ter”. It takes time and dis­tance to write of such a painful thing with such fear­less­ness. Par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors and pol­i­cy­mak­ers must read this book, for it is filled with in­sights into why we con­sume so much of a liq­uid that can make us so ill.

An­drew McMillen is a Brisbane-based jour­nal­ist and au­thor. His se­cond book, Skele­ton School: Dis­sect­ing the Gift of Body Do­na­tion, will be pub­lished in Septem­ber.

El­speth Muir brings a per­cep­tive eye to a deeply per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence

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