Denis Leary: militant mirth marauder


No Cure For Cancer
By Denis Leary
Picador. 133 pp., $12.95.
Reviewed by Dave Riley

My sister runs her household like an amusement parlour. When you visit, you have to speak over the television, which stays on, and she doesn't care who you are. Such distraction sometimes has its merits. On Saturday mornings you can comply with family responsibilities, drink tea and watch the music video clips at the same time. It was during one such visit that I saw Denis Leary performing.

Leary's claim to Australasian fame is a unique clip — I'm an Asshole — which briefly visited our TV screens early last year. They don't write songs like that any more: "Sometimes I park in handicapped spaces/ While handicapped people/ Make handicapped faces ... I'm an asshole."

But Leary is not a video man. He is a monologist. What we would call a one-man show he delivers with the punchiness of stand-up comedy. The "Asshole" song is employed as a prologue for his performance.

My problem is that after that brief introduction to Leary in my sister's living room 18 months back, I haven't seen him since. I must rely on this transcription of his performance to catch his drift — aA: after Asshole. And what a way to go! Leary performs on the edge. This is Iggy Pop fresh out of the asylum, Lenny Bruce gone punk and Richard Pryor firing on all cylinders. Denis Leary is one mean and angry young man.

While he jumps from topic to topic, there is a disciplined delivery which hangs itself between a series of routines taking up the themes of drugs, drink, cigarettes, meat, war and life versus death (and cigarettes). Perhaps Leary's thoughts on drugs are pass‚ material, but the terrible brutality with which he confronts his subject matter transcends the predictable comic approach we may be used to.

For example, Leary on the 1991 Gulf War: "Reagan would have loved the Persian Gulf War. It was perfect. Bush tried to pass it off under the old agenda. 'We're going to war over human rights and oppression'. No. It was oil. If Kuwait's main export was white cotton socks, we wouldn't have been so quick to anger, would we? 'We gotta save those socks, man! Summertime's coming up!'"

Leary's attack on our sensibilities is relentless. For him, comedy is about bursting the bubble of pretension and breaking the rules. It is not for the prudish nor the dogmatic. But neither is it shocking for its own sake. His observations are too sharp and too readily identified with to be worth merely a cheap or guilty laugh. This is intimate, confessional material that is nestled in the anguish of a whole generation.

"Now I realise if I want to change the world, if it can be changed, I've got to get involved. I've got to get my hands on civil rights and all these things I supposedly believe in. I've got to get into position on the power role. Get active. March. Maraud. Get some heart behind my head. So that maybe — 25 years from now — my son can live in a city without race problems. In a country without colour. In a world without war. So that maybe — 25 years from now — he can turn to me one day, put his hand on my shoulder and say, 'You know something, Dad? I really like this place.' And I can honestly answer: 'Well, son. I did my best.'

"And other times, I think: 'Hey, fuck him'."

This is not safe comedy. There won't be a sit-com waiting for Denis Leary at the end of the day. There's too much bitterness here to be reheated as morsels for replay use in cafe society. Denis Leary, insolent and dangerous, is someone to monitor, and this book is a great place to begin your surveillance.

No Cure For Cancer is also available in compact disk on the Polydor label.