Car Crash by Lech Blaine

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In May 2009, seven teenagers in Toowoomba were involved in a car crash which killed three of them and left two in comas.  Lech Blaine – the author of this memoir – survived without injury.  Although it was rumoured that drugs and/or alcohol and speed were causes of the crash, subsequent police investigations showed that the driver had zero alcohol in his blood and had been driving under the speed limit.

Lech Blaine describes the first minute or so after he realises that some of the car’s occupants have not survived:

This will go down as the loneliest moment of my life.  It was like waking up in a war bunker where everyone else had been gassed.  It didn’t occur to me that they may not come to.  [3]

In an often moving – and sometimes self-absorbed – memoir, Blaine sets out his responses to the shock and grief of the death and lengthy comas of his friends.  Turning to alcohol to numb the pain and to distract himself from the scrutiny of his fellow students, he slips into depression and disgrace.  In turn, the memoir follows his experiences as he attempts to come to terms with the crash and charts his early life up to that defining moment.  Car Crash is very much a book about Lech Blaine.

The author explores his early life with honesty and sometimes with rawness as he confronts the impact of his childhood on his adolescence – and the inevitable progress to the night of the crash and his later decline.  His parents – his mother a ‘nervous bookworm and a financial clerk for a department store’ [57] and his father ‘a 130-kilogram cab driver with a mullet … who had never read a novel in his life’ [57] – became foster parents after six miscarriages.

But on 22 January 1992, Lech Jack Thomas [named after Lech Walęsa then the freshly crowned president of Poland] was born to ‘great fanfare’.  As his mother said ‘everyone was so happy that Bubby Jack was born’ [61].  However, the downside of this level of adoration was that it was unsustainable and as Lech says ‘this set me up for daily heartbreaks in the real world’ [61].  It is a remarkable admission and one which reverberates through the book and goes some way to explain the focus of the book on Lech himself rather than his friends who suffered so much more from the accident.

As much as the reader may wish to sympathise with Lech, it is often a challenge particularly when he writes such things as ‘The class chameleon went on holidays as a sarcastic artist and came back as a sensitive new-age spectator.  I was a poet, wrapped within a politician, trapped inside a larrikin’ [92].

The author is very conscious of his social status as a student of Downlands College as opposed to those students of Toowoomba Grammar who are the ‘heirs to vast empires of careless accruement’ ]118].  He describes how he attaches himself to one of the Grammar boys and became suddenly and ‘indisputably cool’ [119] but only due to his notoriety gained from the car crash.  His description of Schoolies Week on the Gold Coast would send shivers of fear down the spines of all parents who are concerned for the wellbeing of their graduating children.

I witnessed girls pissing in the fire escapes, footprints of shit in hallways, bongs hits at kitchen tables, bathtubs filled with vomit, orgies in bedrooms with open doors.  [161]

However, as Lech belatedly acknowledges, none of this ‘coolness’ means anything in real terms.  His inability to properly consummate his relationship with his girlfriend – set out with a raw and detailed frankness in the book – is just one symptom of his progress ‘uninterrupted towards the abyss’ [192].  After his arrest for drink-driving in 2011, Lech finally acknowledges to his GP his escalating suicide ideation which leads to a diagnosis of an adjustment disorder.  His subsequent failed search online for a famous writer with the same condition leads to this frank admission ‘the diagnosis was a crushing blow to the self-importance of my sorrow’ [199].

Car Crash is an interesting and sometimes challenging juxtaposition of raw honesty about the personal aspects of the author’s life – whether his early experiences with his parents, his relationship with his girlfriend, or his alcoholism and bad behaviour – and a self-regard which is at times over-whelming and somewhat off-putting.  As said earlier in this review, Car Crash is essentially about Lech Blaine and any reader coming fresh to the book must accept that and persevere to fully understand the long-term effects of an indulged and over-regarded childhood.

Lech Blaine is now based in Sydney and his work has appeared in The Best Australian Essays, Meanjin, The Guardian and The Monthly.   He has won the 2017 Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award and the 2019 Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Emerging Artist Fellowship.

Car Crash: A Memoir

[2021]

by Lech Blaine

Black Inc

ISBN 9781 863 9596 98

$32.99; 289pp

 

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