Liam Pieper
The Feel-Good Hit of the Year

Feel-good? That would be irony, I’m guessing.

Unlike in your average misery-memoir though, Liam Pieper’s parents are alive and present throughout. And never far away is their stash of “special tobacco”. Flotsam of the ’70s counterculture stranded in the Melbourne suburbs, the Piepers raised their three boys to know, among other things, the differences between a friend and a dealer, bud and leaf, and highs that were okay and those that weren’t. “They liked smoking pot, yes, and mushrooms got a pass, but they were stridently anti-drugs otherwise, except for acid, of course, but only on holidays.”

Pieper sets out that, in other respects, his was your average, happy-enough family – his parents principled and loving, the siblings content to play with Lego or throw rocks. Until, at 12 or 13, the boys would start smoking weed.

By his early teens, Liam, the middle son, was selling drugs around the suburbs. (His parents’ concerns were mollified when he cut them a special price per ounce.) Perhaps inevitably, he slid into dissipation, and a family tragedy sank him further.

Pieper casts himself as “an inept gangster”, not a real crim like some of his hard-nut associates. While he carried a flick-knife and employed a driver who kept a rifle wrapped in a picnic blanket in the boot, he’s cagey about his own capacity for violence. He doesn’t sugarcoat the biffo, but stresses his ineptitude: “I pounced on him, reaching for his throat and settling for his collar … I grabbed spastically at his head.” On that occasion, he’d suspected a customer of having stolen his bag of coke, and resorted first to blows and then to theft, “a handful of green and gold notes” from the man’s wallet. In the end (what was it, years later?) it turned out to have been Somebody Else’s Fault, and he Paid the Guy Back. So that’s okay then.

No prizes for guessing how he eventually overcame his delinquency. The love of a Good Woman will do it (nearly) every time. But if The Feel-Good Hit… is an apologia, at least it’s a funny one. Pieper is a sharp, smart and classy writer. His humour can be cruel, but more often is self-deprecating and rafted with insight. Of his lapsed-Catholic family, he writes: “Deep in each of us [runs] … the moral cowardice afforded by the Serenity Prayer. Lord give me the excuse to accept that things cannot change.” By the end of the book, he – and we – know that’s not true.  FL

Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Liam Pieper, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year". Subscribe here.