Monday, June 23, 2003

Andrew McGahan, “Last Drinks”

Where does corruption start? At what point does playing the system or cutting corners become criminal? What explains the progress from citizen to underworld denizen?

For a journalist and a restaurateur in Brisbane in the late seventies, the “when” comes with an effort to get a liquor license from a corrupt government; the “why” is simple human weakness – the bond of their incipient alcoholism.

The central concern of “Last Drinks” is human weakness: not frailty, or fallibility - but the crippling absence of moral strength. The protagonist has an unflinching perspective on his own weakness, one that gathers depth and poignancy as the novel progresses. He should not be a sympathetic character perhaps, but his failures of strength, of good judgement, of any ability to act, sting acutely each time.

The novel is set in Queensland, in a time after an Inquiry into official corruption, an Inquiry loosely modelled on the Fitzgerald Royal Commission. It is the story of a bit player in the days of officially sanctioned, but illegal, all-night bars, unlicensed casinos and brothels – and the scale of corruption that lay behind these visible, small-time rackets.

The prose is taught, sparse, the words of a man who has hidden from his past and is being dragged back to it - back to Brisbane - to confront how he failed his friends, his lover and in his career. A key part of the novel’s success is its claustrophobic atmosphere and mounting sense of the inevitable. Much of the tension comes from how small a world the narrator inhabits, a world as confined as that of a Gothic short story: there are probably fewer than fifteen named characters, and the novel hinges on the relationships between just six.

Its other triumph is a literary, yet unromantic description of the nature of alcoholism: the creeping addiction, the way it robs a person of dignity, judgement, even time; but its power to fuel a sense of boundless possibility, to free the afflicted from boredom or culpability, to make every fool a wit.

It is no accident that it is an alcoholic, a man who understands living in a false ecstatic state and the painful waking to his own degradation, is the one who tells the story of an official culture grown cancerous with corruption.

I found it an extremely well-crafted novel (as one would expect from the author of the award-winning “Praise”), but wonder about the effectiveness of its somewhat “Heart of Darkness” ending and even perhaps about the depth of his female characters. There are few women, each with an interesting story, but they seem more literary ciphers than people. Still, it has a well-paced plot and an unflinching, unromantic, but quietly human quality that I found compelling.

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