When Lech Blaine was arrested for drink driving as a teenager, he went in search of a diagnosis. For why else would a survivor of a fatal, community-shattering car crash – “the unblemished front seat passenger” – get himself murderously hammered and race off into the night? Surely there was some undiagnosed culprit, some lurking pathology. “I think you climbed behind the wheel of a car for much the same reason you jumped into the passenger seat a year ago,” his GP countered. “To prove you are a man.”
Blaine’s memoir and debut, Car Crash, is a study in Australia’s larrikin brand of toxic masculinity, with all its flamboyant insouciance and cast-iron silences. How can you grieve when you’ve been taught to stare down heartbreak? How can you heal when you can’t admit you’re wounded? Car Crash is the tale of two wreckages: the first, a tragic overcorrection on a dark highway; the second, a lifetime in the making. For trauma is its own kind of collision: a snarl of cultural, community and self expectation; of pain and its public performance.
“There were seven of us,” Blaine begins, “five in the car and two in the boot. We were alive together for the final time.” It is Toowoomba, 2009 – a party beckons across town, but there are too many boys and not enough seats. We all have a story like it, an extra passenger or two squeezed in: perched on a lap, straddling the gearstick, crouched in the back. Seatbeltless, just this once.
The crash claims the lives of three of Blaine’s closest friends and leaves two others on life support. He walks away unharmed – a “lucky bugger”, as he’s forever reminded. He returns to a half-empty house (his warring parents are mid-separation), left to navigate the aftermath the only way he knows how: “I muzzled any displays of pain, toughing it out, as my father would say, up the guts, like mourning was a game of rugby league.”
This book is not a paean to inner resilience but its much-needed opposite
Car Crash recounts these “bizarrely macho” months with a kind of incredulous, heartsore pity. We watch as Blaine hijacks the microphone at a school memorial to give a raucous pep talk (“It ain’t over yet boys!”) and plays the crowd for laughs in a eulogy (“Teenage boys are petrified of confessing how much we mean to one another”). He has a mouth full of “cheap cliches” and a heart full of survivor’s guilt. At first, booze turns “numbness into a ritual” – an unspoken family coping strategy – but the stiff upper lip cannot hold.
Developed from the author’s essay iGrief: A survivor’s guide to dying, Car Crash is an insider’s view of public mourning. The grotesquely human instinct to gawk at disaster metastasises online, and so the facts of the crash – a sober driver, driving under the speed limit – become the only version of the story nobody believes. Blaine makes his first social-media post while his bloodstained clothes are still soaking, ever aware that his online self is being watched. His accounts become swamped with friend requests: “Hundreds of acquaintances and strangers sought a subscription to the ongoing soap opera of my survival.” How easy it is to mistake “curiosity for kinship”, Car Crash shows, and to substitute self-curation for self-reflection.
Car Crash resists the too-tidy narrative arc of redemption. This book is not a paean to inner resilience but its much-needed opposite: a clear-eyed – and disarmingly wry – examination of our tired (and tenacious) scripts for manhood. Raised to idolise sharp-tongued blokes with “quick fists and big swinging dicks”, at 13 Blaine could scull beers “like Bob Hawke”. As we watch him and his mates rumble towards the crash there’s a sickening sense of inevitability, these boys-will-be-boys with their burgeoning entitlement, casual sexism and glorious exuberance.
But it’s as a memoir of the long twilight of the Howard years that Car Crash is at its most bruisingly insightful. Queensland is in the economic roil of the mining boom (“answering the cancer of drought with the radiation of real estate”) but despite the prosperity there’s no grand narrative for what the country could be, just the empty shell of “mateship”. “I wanted to be an artist not a son, brother, mate, Australian, larrikin, but ... my dreams felt like treason,” Blaine writes.
Years later, as he learns his father’s story – a promising maths student ripped from school and shoved into a “real” job at the meatworks – that powerlessness feels like a cruel inheritance. Machismo is not only an expression of cultural (and class) power, Blaine shows, but a response to the perceived lack of it. A kind of opiate of invulnerability.
There’s much that can be forgiven in a book as candid and kind as this one, so determined to show that it’s not a failure to seek help. Car Crash lingers in its final pages, unable to seize upon an ending. That makes sense for an author who has spent his adulthood coming to terms with grief’s shapeshifting ever-presence. “We begin again over and over and over,” he writes. That’s what’s hard about living, and magnificent, too.
• Car Crash by Lech Blaine is out now through Black Inc.