He survived the accident with scarcely a scratch. The other boys didn’t.
It is this singular moment, the tragedy that anchors Lech Blaine’s debut Car Crash, that makes him a constant traveller “tugged from the present to the past by an undertow of sorrow”.
Yes, this is a memoir about a car accident. The kind all too familiar in country Australia: a car full of teenagers, a bend in the road, a cleaving between possible futures. In 2009 in Toowoomba, it left three of his best friends dead before they had even finished school: William Hutchison, Hamish Stewart and Henry Keevers. Two more, Nicholas Bergen and Tim Coonan, were in comas. Dominic Hodal faced jail time for dangerous driving; sober and travelling almost 10km below the speed limit, a jury found him not guilty.
At its core, however, this is a piece of writing which may deliver Blaine home after spending most of his life as a man between worlds: the child of working class parents from regional Queensland who now, at 29, lives in Sydney; the only “miracle” biological child in a family of foster siblings; the would-be sports jock with a poet on the inside.
“I’m not anything in particular. I’m a work in progress and that’s, like, a beautiful thing to be,” he tells Guardian Australia. “I got to the point, after a lot of grief and after a lot of loss, where I was like, it is totally fine to be a makeshift person.”
Survivor’s guilt, or trauma, is enough to make canyons between our selves. For Blaine, the pain has at times been stunning. This book deal with Black Inc landed in 2016; he hired someone to manage the motel he was running in Bundaberg, and moved to the Gold Coast with his sister and her boyfriend to write.
“I didn’t write anything for three months,” he says.
“I was just going for runs every afternoon and absolutely cooking myself in the sun and just numbing myself.”
He had announced the deal largely to give the scores of people he couldn’t get in touch with personally time to emotionally absorb the mere fact of its happening: a book that would detail a moment in time covered forensically by local and national media. This tragedy that belonged to the families of the dead boys and, through the vagaries of grief, to everyone in the community. How to write anything that even approaches that hurt?
“It was like fuck, what do I say after that? It’s just a book. I can’t bring them back to life,” he says.
“I can’t possibly make up for the fact that I got the winning lottery ticket and they didn’t. That’s just the way it is and that is a totally separate existential issue to writing a memoir.”
Trauma is a magnifying glass. The wreckage that opens this book and its otherworldly aftermath becomes a memoir of the worlds that Blaine straddled.
Take his parents, for example: a rough-as-guts leftie dad, a publican, who shows his love through pragmatism; and his mother, a voracious reader who encouraged him to dream, to be thoughtful, to be involved.
“I wanted to be an artist, not a son, brother, mate, Australian, larrikin,” he writes. “But in the dusk of John Howard’s reign, when the mundane suffocated the sublime, my dreams felt like treason.”
It’s in this analysis of self that Car Crash becomes a truly special work. How to elevate his mother Lenore, flawed but loving? She was razor-sharp in mind and speech but, pre-Whitlam, could never have gone to university and deplored snobbery. Is Blaine’s father Tom a politically correct figure? Does it matter? He cared. He was kind.
“I guess I was worried people would see him totally through the prism of toxic masculinity. We rush to condemn people with those rough edges, and those are the people who do a lot of the heavy lifting in social justice around the country,” Blaine says.
When Blaine went off to university, his mother kept him grounded.
“If I ever thought going to university made me a better person, Mum absolutely hated that and she would call me out on it,” Blaine says.
She prized other qualities beyond arbitrary markers of success. His sister Rebecca left school at 15 and had her first child a year later.
“Mum was just so proud of her as a human being. She now has five kids and has never subjected her children to the life of trauma that she came from,” Blaine says. His father died in 2011 and his mother in 2018.
Trauma has no “heartwarming moments of redemption”, Blaine writes, just the messy work of living. There was “no full-blown PTSD” but he finds the horror creeps back in the most anomalous of ways.
The need for distance, for example, in relationships both romantic and platonic.
“I have a tendency to just need space and to need detachment, where I just feel a little bit adrift from everything,” he says.
I’m curious, I ask, if this has anything to do explicitly with the crash itself; that he was the one who looked totally unharmed? Were you just floating around, untethered and just kind of alone, and do you retreat to that feeling?
Blaine laughs nervously.
“You’ve basically just summarised my existential condition so thanks for that,” he says. “But yeah … at this age where I think I would have been capable of entering these really imperfect romantic relationships and figuring stuff out, [the crash] meant that I wasn’t.”
Perhaps, too, he drifts elsewhere because he has been unable to leave the world of his three dead mates. They are frozen in time.
Blaine writes: “Hamish and Will would never get to make the mistakes that shape a character, the way people break hearts and drift apart from family members. Most of us would never trade the rifts and disappointments of adulthood for that terrible perfection.”
That’s his biggest lament.
“The innocence of being able to drift apart like normal human beings,” he says.
“A big breakthrough in the healing process was when I stopped running away from grief. Writing the book brought up all of those emotions again, but it also made me fall even more in love with them as people.”
Car Crash by Lech Blaine is out now through Black Inc. Lech Blaine and Rick Morton are both appearing at separate events of Sydney Writers’ festival, which opens 26 April
Rick Morton is the senior reporter at the Saturday Paper, which – like Black Inc – is part of the Schwartz Media group