A Review of Andrew McGahan’s Last Drinks

The style is serviceable but without the lift and lilt that distinguishes the classic practitioners of the novel noir, Chandler and Hammett. A purist might think that McGahan is careless regarding grammatical niceties but this is a common failing and his solecisms, though they grate, are few.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Last Drinks
by Andrew McGahan
Allen and Unwin, 2001
ISBN 1-86508-592-8, 377 pages, rrp$21.00

George Verney is the protagonist of this dark book, which literally opens in darkness, a darkness resulting from a power failure that is tied to the murder of George’s former friend, Charlie Monohan. In a sense everything seems to be former in George’s life. He holds an obscure newspaper job in a small city. He was once a hard drinking man but now he lives alone and in some kind of disgrace.

The style is serviceable but without the lift and lilt that distinguishes the classic practitioners of the novel noir, Chandler and Hammett. A purist might think that McGahan is careless regarding grammatical niceties but this is a common failing and his solecisms, though they grate, are few.

George, a reporter, and Charlie, a restaurant owner, were young men in Brisbane when they became friends. At that time Brisbane was a city that limited who could sell alcohol and set the times at which it could be served. Charlie is anxious to have a license for his restaurant and the efforts that the two friends make precipitates the crisis that brings them and others to ruin.

Back in Highwood, where senior police sergeant Graham has released George after prolonged questioning, George waits for his lover, Emily, to leave the school where she is principal. McGahan skillfully interweaves past and present in George’s situation. Charlie died at the hands of sadistic killers and George is willing to believe that his death in Highwood was coincidental but he must abandon this hope when he learns that Charlie had been looking for him some hours prior to his death. Charlie was the victim of the Brisbane Inquiry. George was one of those who ran from it although it would be jocular to say that he escaped from it unscathed. Graham nudges him into seeing to Charlie’s funeral since there is no one else. Charlie’s wife, Maybellene, had had an affair with George, had divorced the imprisoned and now retarded Charlie and vanished. Arrangement of Charlie’s funeral will take George back to Brisbane for the first time since the Inquiry. He sees himself as being in danger of losing all of the little he has gained in Highwood.

George’s memory of the past occupies him as he drives from Highwood to Brisbane. He and Charlie had found the right man to help them to a license. This was Marvin McNulty, a new member of the Queensland parliament, not very important as yet but willing to adopt any route to power. Charlie and George are dismayed by the amount of money needed to get a license, most of it in the form of bribes, but Marvin has a solution. He will go into partnership with them. Lindsay Heath, a professional middleman of Queensland corruption, will also help them and in effect will also become a partner in the restaurant.

A fantasy of triumphal return is on George’s mind even though he knows that this is not a reasonable expectation. The reality of the new Brisbane, bright, happy and liberated from laws imposed by the privileged and corrupt few, depresses him even though he sees that it is the city that he and Charlie wanted before they entered into the corruption of old Brisbane. There is barely a trace of the city from which he had fled a mere ten years ago.

There are few mourners at the crematorium, George and a group from the rehab center that Charlie had frequented. The driver of the bus from the center asks George if he will take possession of Charlie’s few belongings since there is no one else to give them to. George agrees, disturbed and not in command of himself since he had caught a glimpse of Maybellene (May) leaving the funeral. In his interview with the bus driver, who is also the resident psychologist, George learns the Charlie had, after a three-day binge, left the center for the detox unit of a very expensive hospital. This is mysterious since he had, so far as the psychologist knew, no money. George takes the briefcase – the sole property left by Charlie. It contains along with miscellaneous business documents – receipted bills, bank statements – newspaper clippings of Charlie at the height of his career in the restaurant business.

One of the clippings triggers George’s memories of a particular night and the cluster of events that surrounded it. Marvin comes to power as a result of his successful and unscrupulous handling of a labor dispute. Under his management the striking electrical workers are broken. In desperation some of them – including May – set fire to the premises of a scab organization designed to replace the union workers. There is an informer and May goes to jail. Sir Jeremy Phelan intercedes with Marvin on her behalf and in the course of the tangled negotiations Jeremy becomes another partner in Charlie’s restaurant enterprise, now expanded into nightclubs with provision for gambling and prostitution.

George visits St. Amand’s, the expensive hospital in which Charlie had spent three days. The administrator who talks to him is uncommunicative but as he leaves he recalls that the institution is relevant. Jeremy was an alcoholic and had a connection with St. Amand’s. George finds Jeremy’s number in his old address book. To his surprise he finds that Jeremy is still at this number. Jeremy invites him to dinner. George finds him in an advanced stage of leukemia. Jeremy tells George that he did not use his influence to admit Charlie to St. Amand’s, it was Marvin. When George attempts to find Marvin through the Brisbane police, Detective Kelly, the member of the police service attached to the investigation of Charlie’s death, tells him that Marvin is missing. That George was looking for Marvin reawakens police interest and Detective Kelly asks him not to leave Brisbane immediately. Kelly and his partner Lewis take George to Marvin’s home where Kelly gives George portions of Marvin’s memoirs to read. Charlie hated Marvin and they met at St. Amand’s shortly before Charlie’s death and Marvin’s disappearance. Kelly and Lewis suspect that Marvin killed Charlie. Kelly tells George to go home, that it’s a police matter and that there is nothing that he can do.

George wanders through the new Brisbane and broods over its differences to the old. He stumbles across a strip club that Detective Lewis had recommended half derisively to him. He enters when he observes two men enter. One of them is Lindsay Heath, the mysterious other partner of the syndicate, who had fled Brisbane at the beginning of the Inquiry. He owns the strip club and Detective Lewis directed George to it from a twisted sense of humor. This turns out to be almost fatal to George. Marvin has sought Lindsay’s help in disappearing. He is trying to avoid someone, someone named George. Lindsay’s goons rough George up in expectation that he is the man but Lindsay, almost insultingly, tells George that he cannot be the George in question since he is totally ineffectual. He offers to let Marvin know of George’s interest in meeting him.

Lindsay arranges the meeting and George finds the once dynamic Marvin as a shrunken relic of himself. Marvin tells of the other resident at St. Amand’s. It was George Clarke, one time partner of Marvin, and a dangerous man who will stick at nothing. The choice of the Highwood power substation proves to have been coincidental in regard to the narrator but very apropos for George Clarke. The contract for the substation was one of the first rewards that Marvin gave Clarke as reward for breaking the union of electrical workers. His continued involvement and corrupt management of Queensland power has made Clarke the subject of a new inquiry. This sent Clarke’s drinking out of control. At St. Amand’s he babbled first to Marvin and Charlie and then to Charlie alone. Something in the latter situation made Charlie flee from St. Amand’s and sent Clarke out after him. Clarke called Marvin to threaten him and he went underground immediately with Lindsay’s help.

This account of the plot takes little consideration of George Verney and his struggle with sobriety and his discovery of self in Highwood. Active in the background is the Catholicism, mostly seen as guilt and remorse, of lapsed Catholics. The emphasis on the evils of drinking makes it into almost a tractarian piece and the ubiquity of alcoholic situations obscures motives and events perhaps more than is reasonable or aesthetically acceptable.

Marvin is dead, apparently he killed himself. George learns this from Detective Kelly who alerts him that a new detective will come to interview him. George watches from his motel window and sees a man that he had seen near Marvin’s hideout. He deduces that this is a policeman in Clarke’s pay and is come to kill him. By a ruse he deflects the detective from his prey but the next moment he finds a visitor at his door. At first he fears that it is another corrupt policeman but it is May. She helps him to escape. Together they visit Jeremy now in the hospital and dying. May tells George how difficult life was for her after the fall of the corrupt government. This leads up to her disclosure that in desperation she married George Clarke. She left him some months prior to the murder of Charlie.

Aware of the dangers of remaining longer in Brisbane, George decides that he and May should seek refuge with Stanley Smith, a bitter recluse who lives near Highwood. Although Stanley hates George, he has a fierce integrity that George knows makes him reliable. Under May’s influence George has resumed drinking and this impedes the efficiency of their movements.

The forces gather explosively in Highwood and the tragic potentials play out dramatically. The book is engrossing although there are serious faults, many of them noted above, but the most serious is the heavy-handed depiction of the evils of drink. McGahan sounds this note repeatedly and the book hovers perpetually on the edge of the didactic. Unscrupulous sex and heavy drinking are the steamy fantasies that plague these lapsed Catholics and their remorse and guilt find expression in a number of unappetizing ways. Their sordid personal hells with a past that erupts painfully into the present are well represented and the author holds out no hope of redemption. This is a tough book and, although it appears superficially to be subject to severe limitations, it is capable of addressing a number of different levels.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at:
http://fracman.home.mchsi.com/

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