Down and Out in Paradise by Luke Williams

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The sub-title of this book by Luke Williams is East West Sex Death which offers the reader a good indication of what is inside the book.  And what is inside is a fascinating and intriguing story of one man’s search for some sense of purpose to his life.  While that may sound hackneyed at first glance, it is far from that.

Down and Out in Paradise is described by its author as a memoir – that is, a story of a period in someone’s life and, in this case, of Luke Williams’ life.  In this book the author says: I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories and at-the-time recordings of them.  But he adds a caveat – sometimes while under the effect of drugs or alcohol, and while experiencing the symptoms and effects of mental illness.

It is a very personal account of the author’s travels around South-East Asia and specifically in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and India.  The question which may come to mind is – why?  The answer is simply ‘an escape’.

The book opens with a scene which could have been taken from any B-grade crime thriller but is from the author’s life.  He is tied to a chair with his mouth taped shut.  He broke into a house in an attempt to steal drugs but was caught by the owner of the house. 

Luke Williams takes the reader through both his experiences and his impressions of these countries.  He has an eye for beauty and the poetry in what he sees – but when necessary, he also sees the mundane, the obscene and the sordid.  An example of the former is his first impression of Bangkok.

A city sitting under a tropical sun, of bare skins and rapid grins, purple dusks and rabid fertility.  A land once filled with cave people, sabre-toothed tigers and packs of giant hyenas.  A city with reassuringly outdated western fashions. [5]

An example of the latter is the following passage.

Rats the size of cats, street food carts like abattoirs.  Gender-bending dancing queens living full time in that ABBA song.  Post-apocalyptic. … A grittier, grimier, sexier, tropicalised alternative dimension. [13]

As he moves through Asia, he outlines the history of each of the country he visits.  Clearly, he has researched well as the book includes an extensive bibliography arranged by country.  His synopsis of the confusing and complex history of Vietnam [for example] does not distract from his story but adds another dimension to it.  It offers a deeper understanding of the impact of successive invaders from the Chinese, Kublai Khan, the French, and later the United States in what is known in Vietnam as the ‘American War’ and how those invasions shaped the country and its people.

His research extends though beyond history to reading authors with a keen insight and understanding of the Asian cultures.  Writers such as Graham Greene and VS Naipaul are referenced. 

It seems that there are three dimensions in the countries he visits – the tourist dimension of five- star hotels, river cruises. high-end shops and restaurants; the local dimension where the locals go about their day-to-day work and play; and the back-street dimension where alcohol, drugs and prostitution of every kind are de rigueur.  It is in the latter dimension where the author – and consequently the reader – spends much of his time.  Some of the vignettes offered and the inferences which can be drawn from them are confronting to say the least.

A white middle-aged man vaped as he sat with his girlfriend dressed in high heels, a mini-skirt, full-face of make-up.  She was four foot five, possibly fourteen, more likely twelve. [202-03]

This does not make for pleasant reading but discarding the book because of the confronting images does the book and the author a disservice.  These vignettes are not voyeuristic or prurient but reflect – no doubt accurately – the lives of those people portrayed in the vignettes.

Luke Williams has written an erudite, moving and often challenging memoir of a period in his life during which he was struggling with drug addiction, his mental illness – and that of a number of his close male relatives – and his troubled past.  His trip to Asia was an attempt to work through these issues and achieve some resolution so that he could return to Australia and create a future for himself.

He has achieved his objective – he has come back from the east ‘more compassionate, calmer. friendlier’ [242] and has since written two books.

While the reading this book may present the reader with images which may take some time to fade away, that is not such a bad thing.  Sometimes, we need to put our western lives in perspective and understand that for many people day-to-day life is a struggle where moralising has no place and is of no help.

Luke Williams is a journalist and a two-time Walkley nominee.  His first book The Ice Age – A Journey into Crystal-Meth Addiction was nominated for both a Walkley and the Nib Waverley Literary Prize.  In 2013, he was nominated for a Human Rights Media Award for a long-form investigative piece in The Global Mail. A series of popular travel articles he wrote in 2018 has been re-published in France, India, Brazil, Romania, Vietnam, Nigeria, Ghana and the UK.

Down and Out in Paradise

[2019]

by Luke Williams

Echo Publishing

ISBN 978 1 76068 584 3

304pp; $32.99

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