George Verney fled from Brisbane in the aftermath of the Inquiry, an investigation into corruption that tore the state apart. Content to work as a journalist for the local paper, George has lived in the small town of Highwood for a decade. When his old friend is found dead int he local power sub-station, under decidedly suspicious circumstances, George is drawn back to the city he once loved, and the life that once loved him back.
Like many Australians, though not of Queensland I have a connection to it (in this case my father and his family) and have visited. As McGahan points out, Queensland is different - a difference accepted but unexplored. McGahan discusses how, why it was able to keep the same premier for over thirty years, why the political set up is different from that in the rest of the country, how the people in power managed to inculcate a distrust of education and infrastructure that other people take as necessities, and how corruption not only flourished but became an accepted part of doing business.
I can't do justice to this magnificent book, an homage to alcohol abuse, a clear eyed vision of Brisbane past, and a triumph of writing. His voice is crystalline, his prose lucid and lucent, his protagonist flawed and blind and genuine. I recently reviewed another of his books, Underground, which was funnier. I devoured it, and was less conscious of the beautiful prose - in Last Drinks I was better able to pace myself, and therefore caught a lot of the just perfect writing. I don't tend to retain specific phrases long, but the sentence "Conditioned air embraced me like winter" stays with me.
I'm tempted to quote long sections about the Queensland way, both for their factual illumination and for the beautiful prose. Instead I'm going to restrict myself to one paragraph (from pages - 341 - 342):
"... we were falling behind the southern states in everything - industry, infrastructure, education. People were starting to wonder why. So the parliament said tot he voters, it doesn't matter if you're poor. You're tougher than those southern states, you don't need good roads or good schools, you're tougher than that, you're different. Ignore anyone from the south who laughs at us, ignore anyone who suggests things could be better. In fact, be suspicious of anyone who says things could be better. They don't understand the Queensland way...
"You're rough and ready, they said. You don't need sophistication. You'll get by because you're simple, decent., hard-working folk. Be satisfied with less, be satisfied with backwardness. No, be proud of it. Because you're unique here in Queensland...
"The worship of ignorance. It's an excuse, that's all it is. It's the excuse of rednecks and backwaters and corrupt governments the world over. The saddest thing is the that people believe it. They get used to it. They accept whatever leftovers they're given. And meanwhile the bastards at the top keep scooping the heart out of the place."
Well, I tried for one paragraph but just couldn't stop. This is a novel that is deeply disquieting and deeply satisfying. I postponed reading it because I so enjoyed Underground I was concerned this would, if less good, detract from my enjoyment of the first read book. Instead, Last Drinks has enhanced my appreciation of this writer and his overwhelmingly perfect creations. - Alex