Despite constant reminders that Australian culture is soaked in alcohol, a substance that causes immense harm, it is rare to find a book willing to tackle the complexity of the problem. Many may not want to hear what first-time Brisbane author Elspeth Muir has to say on the subject, but it is their loss. Wasted capably covers a range of alcohol-related issues, from coward punching to sexual assault and depression, without ever coming across as smug or preachy. The prose style of this unheralded writer, whose previous work has been published in journals such as Voiceworks and The Lifted Brow, is so achingly beautiful and assured, Helen Garner might be pleased to hand her the keys to the creative nonfiction kingdom and ride off into the Carlton sunset.
What renders this affecting debut all the more remarkable is how difficult it must have been to write. Muir’s brother jumped or fell, or, in a disturbing, unexplored aside perhaps best left alone, was conceivably pushed off Brisbane’s Story Bridge in 2009. Despite being a superb swimmer, he was found dead three days later. His blood alcohol level was such that he would have been heavily inebriated at the time. Muir’s honest, unflinching investigation of his passing unlocks a hornet’s nest of family and societal truths. Her brother had been drinking to excess since his early teens, as had the author, and just about everyone else they knew.
Crisply edited into 21 short chapters, Wasted chronicles Muir’s exploration of drink culture, both in Australia and overseas, as she staggers from grim Melbourne sharehouse to the pampas of Argentina, all the while struggling to comprehend how booze has robbed her of a sibling. Nights out on the sauce in Buenos Aires and Fortitude Valley are sharply contrasted, each presenting their own dangers. Muir’s travel writing, which could so easily have collapsed into self-indulgence, is just as compelling as her investigative journalism.
Special mention must go to these South American passages, where she finds herself sometimes in the sidecar of a motorcycle, and often drunk. They are so vivid and melancholy, and such a clever subversion of beat-poet era Chautauqua, that the sodden romance of, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary is rendered callow and wrongheaded as a result. Sure to be much discussed, Wasted is a prize contender from a talent whose potential has thankfully survived the world of insobriety that consumes so many. JD
Text, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Elspeth Muir, Wasted". Subscribe here.