Review: Drink, Smoke, Pass Out by Judith Lucy (AWW Challenge 2013 #2)

drinksmokepassoutI’ve loved Judith Lucy’s stand-up comedy for years – her earthy, dry, self-deprecating wit rarely fails to hit the mark with me. Recently, in her Australian ABC documentary series, Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, Lucy (a lapsed Catholic) explored her own search for spiritual meaning in a way that I (an atheist interested in philosophy) found both engaging and entertaining.

Drink, Smoke, Pass Out is a companion to the TV series, giving Lucy’s whole background from goody-two-shoes Catholic girl (so hard to imagine!) through to her adult avoidance of being troubled mainly by staying drunk and high, through to her realisation that maybe she needs to tackle her relationship with the universe rather than trying to stay numb to it. The book steps lightly through the events of the TV series (after all, you can watch that for more detail) and concludes that although she’s still looking for answers, it’s a good thing to at least be asking the questions.

The title is a riff on the popular Eat, Pray, Love, and the book is firmly planted in traditional Judith Lucy territory: sardonic, self-deprecating, earthy and mocking of pretentions, most often her own. This book could so easily have been an indulgent, self-righteous ‘I have seen the light’ affair. Alternatively, it could have been a terrible, cynical excuse to laugh at the many (and, to be fair, sometimes quite strange) ways people seek for meaning.

Instead, what you get is a thoughtful, passionate exploration of Judith Lucy’s personal demons and her practical methods of finding a better way of dealing with them than by being drunk most of the time. She’s not gone all wowser on us – she still likes a drink, she still smokes (though she seem to have given up passing out) – but she is genuine in her curiosity about people’s search for wisdom, and still approaches things with a sense of humour.

Most of the time this works well, especially given her stated aim of wanting to talk about spirituality and the search for meaning in a way that ‘doesn’t want to make people puke’. Sometimes, it’s a little jarring – a few paragraphs of thoughtful analysis and even insight often ends in a neat, sardonic little joke, and it feels like Lucy is backing off from her own opinions. Still, she is a comedian, and while she takes the notion of spirituality seriously, she remains keenly aware of human absurdity. She’s not cynical, but she has a healthy scepticism about practices and approaches that seem more about making a buck than about enlightenment.

In many ways, Drink, Smoke, Pass Out is the sceptics’ guide to the search for meaning. Grounded in reality, Lucy’s journey admits to the many ways in which people try to find harmony with the world they live in and with their own fears, lacks and disappointments. Her conclusion that the search for meaning is as important (or even more important) than claiming to have found it resonated with me. I may be an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I go through the world devoid of a moral framework or a need for meaning. Everyone needs to work out what their relationship is with the universe: with their environment, the land and their fellow creatures. My search has let me to philosophy rather than religion, but that is just one way to engage with the world.

If you are wary of treatises that wax too lyrical about angels, crystals, healing energies or other mystical gateways to happiness, but you remain interested in the human search for balance within themselves and with their world, Judith Lucy’s unsentimental but open-hearted exploration is worth reading.