Mem­oir gorges on the ugly truths of ex­cess

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ro­han Wil­son’s

Mar­cel Duchamp once said a paint­ing that doesn’t shock isn’t worth paint­ing. The French artist knew a thing or two about shock, that strange power art has to up­set and sur­prise. The porce­lain uri­nal he at­tempted to ex­hibit at the 1917 So­ci­ety of In­de­pen­dent Artists show be­came a sen­sa­tion af­ter the com­mit­tee re­fused to al­low it. A uri­nal pre­sented as art? It seems quaint to us to­day that any­one would con­sider it up­set­ting. We are used to the af­fronts that art so likes to give. Take a walk through MONA and see how far you go with­out be­ing af­fronted.

So it’s re­fresh­ing to find that Brent­ley Frazer’s mem­oir, Scoundrel Days, pro­vides us with that rarest of lit­er­ary treats: a good dose of the shock­ing. We fol­low Brent­ley as a boy in the 1980s through the wild towns of Queens­land’s far north — Char­ters Tow­ers, Green­vale, Townsville, Cairns — as he learns the hard lessons of life. Chiefly, that adults are hyp­ocrites, that child­hood doesn’t last long, and that drugs and al­co­hol are an es­cape.

His par­ents be­long to a re­li­gious cult and the pres­sure is on Brent­ley to con­form but as he learns more about his mum and dad, he comes to un­der­stand that re­li­gion is of­ten just a cover for their sex­ual ap­petites. His mem­o­ries of be­ing cir­cum­cised at an early age so he can be brought closer to Je­sus lead to one of the more shock­ing — and shock­ingly hi­lar­i­ous — mo­ments in the book as Brent­ley and a bunch of fel­low pre-teens take speed tablets and mas­tur­bate to­gether for the first time while try­ing to fig­ure out what adults mean by ‘‘growl­ing out’’.

This scene pre­fig­ures a lot of what will oc­cupy the au­thor for the rest of the story. Frazer is writ­ing here in the tra­di­tion of He­len Garner, Andrew McGa­han and Nick Earls. This is dirty re­al­ism at its dirt­i­est. There is no short­age of sex, drugs and vi­o­lence. The drugs are a lowlevel hum un­der­neath the main noise of the story, never quite reach­ing the sta­tus of a prob­lem. The vi­o­lence breaks through in colour­ful bursts now and then when Brent­ley or his best mate Reuben run afoul of some bully or, as things progress, be­come the bul­lies them­selves.

The sex, though, is what seems to get Brent­ley in the most trou­ble. Whether it’s preda­tory re­li­gious fig­ures, horny Amer­i­can back­pack­ers, or des­per­ately lonely long-dis­tance lovers, our hero is never more than a few steps away from some new en­tan­gle­ment. By mid­way through the mem­oir, these en­tan­gle­ments start to feel less like Dogs in Space and more like Alvin Pur­ple. They shed lit­tle light on who Brent­ley was at these points in his life. The women come and go and we learn barely more about them than what they look like.

There isn’t a lot of shock value to be found, or much in­sight. The ques­tion of misog­yny starts to peek out of the text but any sense that it might be dealt with is fore­stalled un­til later on.

Then Candy ar­rives on the scene. Candy trans­forms slowly from yet an­other girl into some­one more sig­nif­i­cant. The two of them move up and down the coun­try, from share house to share house, and from pub to pub. She be­comes sig­nif­i­cant to Brent­ley but sig­nif­i­cant to us as well, in that she’s the only per­son so far to earn our sym­pa­thy.

Her fam­ily be­trays her at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Brent­ley be­trays her at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Yet through­out she main­tains a sense of strength and in­de­pen­dence.

It is even­tu­ally Candy and her in­flu­ence on his life that causes Brent­ley to look in­wards and ask him­self why he is so lonely, why he can’t main­tain re­la­tion­ships and why he treats women so poorly. To the credit of the au­thor, these ques­tions re­main open-ended. We’re given lots to think about, though.

I must also men­tion the ap­proach Frazer has taken to writ­ing this highly read­able mem­oir. He uses a style called English Prime, where the verb forms of ‘‘to be’’ are ex­cluded. The ef­fect is sub­tle — so sub­tle that you would miss it if you weren’t aware. But it does have no­table ef­fects through­out. Mostly, it forces Frazer into a more ac­tive syn­tax as the de­mands of E-Prime pre­clude him from a lot of nar­ra­tor-driven de­scrip­tion. In­stead, this pushes him into ob­ser­va­tions made di­rectly by his char­ac­ter.

The re­sult is an outer world that re­flects the in­ner life Brent­ley is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. We see what he sees. The im­agery is of­ten strained to the point of in­sin­cer­ity and the metaphors are of­ten mixed, but this doesn’t break the deal. The out­come is an im­mer­sive, vi­tal prose that al­most drags the reader along. This is not your or­di­nary mem­oir. Think of it more as an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel or cre­ative non­fic­tion.

If, like I do, you re­mem­ber the 80s and 90s as times of bo­hemian ex­cess, you’ll find a lot to en­joy in Frazer’s ter­rific book. Be­ware, though: we were nas­tier, uglier peo­ple back then. Frazer is de­ter­mined to show the truth of those days, ug­li­ness and all. nov­els are The Rov­ing Party and To Name Those Lost.

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