High season – a memoir of heroin and hospitality – Jim Hearn

I began reading this book, appropriately, on Wategos Beach. On a sun-bathed Sunday in winter, curved waves curled in clean, neat lines toward the shore where from my towel I could just see the white building that is Rae’s on Watego’s, scene of half the memoir.

Jim Hearn’s debut novel consists of two stories that weave in and out of each other. Both deal with versions of his past: one relatively recent, and a more remote one that tracks Jim’s life up to the point of the opening scene. He is head chef at Rae’s, it is New Year’s Day and we are swept instantly into the action of a tiny, stressful kitchen and a dining room of celebrities. Paris Hilton and her entourage have descended, unannounced, for lunch and the restaurant’s namesake is nowhere to be found.

Jim’s is a narrative style that rollicks along and flows effortlessly, interspersed with the perfectly- captured and expletive-riddled dialogue of his young kitchen team. With the initial scene set up he offers us a small clue to the dark past that will gradually unravel. ‘Lunch service’, he says, ‘is going well. And this is despite everyone being hungover from New Year’s Eve. Everyone but me. And I’m not messed up because New Year’s Eve and I go way back.’

Everyone loves a tale of personal redemption – and this one delivers. When Jim was six years old he returned from school to discover that the family home had been sold in a bizarre, ideological gesture by his socially minded father, who handed the proceeds of the sale over to a family less fortunate then proceeded to trundle his own from town to town. His mother duly left, and became a prostitute. ‘My childhood’, Jim writes, ‘was essentially over’. Was it this, then, that informed his fall from grace?

That particular fall was to occur years later when, now a young chef in Sydney, he was introduced to heroin. ‘Prior to that moment,’ he writes, ‘life as I understood it could be depicted as a series of random sketches that formed a clumsy whole. Now it had all come together in the most warmly felt of ways, like hollandaise sauce… I reasoned that if being loved could ever feel half as good as this, then I had never been loved.’

There ensue years of drug and alcohol abuse, endlessly changing jobs, dubious relationships, self-loathing, petty crime and amorality. The book is utterly frank in its revelation of his lowest, most contemptible moments. And throughout it all we are regularly brought back to the New Year’s Day and its events and insidious unfoldings, interspersed with Jim’s musings on the pressured life of those who work in the hospitality industry.

In fact, hospitality is the recurring theme: its fundamental definition of the provision of basic human needs. Part of the author’s growth and redemption comes about through love – he meets Alice (’What we made of our lives with each other was all that really counted’) – but part of it derives from the realisation that ‘people’s ideas about what hospitality means are formed by their experiences of home… ‘. Hospitality, then, as the nurturing force the author felt lacking in his own life. ‘It was the home I never had,’ he says. ‘Hospitality is about pleasure and the human body, about the universal need to eat, drink and sleep… ‘

This is a moving, often shocking, sometimes humorous account of a chef’s life, of a boy
who veered over to the dark side and yet who astonishingly clawed his way back to salvation: a man who survived. Jim Hearn features at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival on Sunday 5 August in a session titled ‘Cooking Your Way to Salvation’. He will also be appearing at Mary Ryan’s bookstore in Byron Bay this Thursday 28 June at 5 pm, when I will have the pleasure of chatting to him.

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