Elspeth Muir's Wasted was long listed for the Stella Award 2017. For some reason it really called to me to read it. I really like the double entendre title, although not the cover particularly, and didn't really know much more about the book than the subtitle: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane. I almost got to see Elspeth talk at Newcastle Writer's Festival this year, but sadly didn't manage it.
Wasted is part-memoir, part-nonfiction and grew from Elspeth's grief, despair and anger at the death of her youngest brother, Alexander.
My brother died because he was drunk, and because the drink made him stupid.Alexander had quite the proclivity for drinking, he started sneaking out of home to drink from the age of 13. A year before he was to drown in the Brisbane River at 21, Alexander woke up one morning passed out under the mangroves of the river bank.
I thought this was hilarious.Elspeth documents her own hazardous drinking in much the same way.
I drank more than ever. On rare nights I could remember getting home but usually I had no idea what had happened past midnight. I shed personal objects- cards, wallets and phones. I spent Saturdays and Sundays vomiting bile into a saucepan. I started to feel darkness when I drank: a grasping, anxious slide from euphoria into deep nervous anger. It started with small tendrils of anxiety, then my breath became shallow and I started kicking as hard as I could to stay afloat. I drank more to stave off the fall but it was inevitable, and drinking more just made me black out.Alexander drank heavily, he had frequent blackouts and would often disappear for days at a time. He was arrested for the first time at just fifteen, and had some minor skirmishes with the police. Of course many young Australians drink this way, most will survive it, some don't, and her brother was one of the unlucky ones. Each week one young Australian between 16 and 25 will die, and more than 60 will be hospitalised from alcohol related incidents.
Drugs were expensive, and tricky to get because their procurement needed to be planned in advance, but alcohol was cheap- five dollars for a cleanskin, ten for a cask- and there were bottle shops all around us, including a twenty-four-hour one a fifteen minute walk away.The second half of the book is more nonfiction than memoir, where Elspeth looks at the role of alcohol in our culture. There are interesting discussions about white versus Aboriginal drinking, and Elspeth spends an eyeopening night with Red Frogs volunteers at Schoolies on the Gold Coast.
Yet there is something unsettling and unsettled about the place of alcohol in Australian society. At its best the drinking culture is characterised by egalitarianism, a laid-back attitude and a spirit of creativity. Australians invented the goon bag and the stubby, while the first tubs of Vegemite were by-products of discarded Carlton and United Brewery yeast. At its worst the nation's drinking can be characterised by violent and recklessness, exclusion and a pattern of boozing to extremes.Overall I enjoyed Wasted, especially the memoir sections, at times it was like Elspeth and I lived in the same share households... Wasted casts an interesting light on Australian drinking culture, a culture that I both participate in from time to time (although no longer as enthusiastically as in the past), and see as an observer.