If President Obama created a cabinet position for a Department of Heroin, he would no doubt appoint Jerry Stahl to run it. Chances of this happening are slim, so instead we have Stahl editing this wide-ranging anthology of pieces that, as the title suggests, chronicles the joys, pitfalls, and harrowing nature of the American narcotic experience.
Readers familiar with the writings of Jerry Stahl will concede his expertise in the area of addiction and recovery, most notably depicted in his masterful memoir, Permanent Midnight. Having read a slew of dark recollections of addicts and the wrestling matches they perform with their demons over the years, I was afraid I might encounter an ongoing parade of junkies and their usual tales of predictable woe in this anthology. Stahl has averted such a disaster and served us a diverse platter by a talented collection of writers such as Lydia Lunch, Tony O’Neil, Eric Bogosian, Antonia Crane, and others. I was surprised by the departure from the usual formula of gloom contained in these pages of the needle plungers and powder imbibers. I’m not saying these stories aren’t often dark, but they stretch the imagination of your typical torrid tale of heroin users.
In “Fragments of Joe,” Tony O’Neill (author of Sick City, Digging the Vein) offers an unusual tale in which two addicts are caught up in the middle of a violent drug rip-off and are severely injured. There is some question as they continue on whether they are alive or dead. O’Neil’s bizarre ending will catch you off guard and make you wonder what other dark matter is contained in these pages.
Nathan Larson (The Dewey Decimal System, The Nervous System), in “Dos Mac + The Jones,” presents his futuristic vision of what it might be like to score in a post-apocalyptic world, in case you ever wondered. Performance artist Lydia Lunch demonstrates in “Ghost Town” how substance abuse can taint the alchemy of a relationship. “I wasn’t interested in slowing shit down. Smoothing it out. Softening the edges,” she writes. “I wanted to keep the edges rough . . .” When you read her story you will see that she has perfected her technique.
One thing I noticed throughout the stories in this book is the consistent love/hate relationship each participant has with their drug of choice. It is the story of the abused spouse returning to their abuser. Stahl confirms this pattern with a quote from William Burroughs stating “it’s not the heroin that’s the problem, it’s the lifestyle.” Stahl expands on this notion in his own contribution to the book, in his typically self-effacing style: “On smack, sometimes, you feel so perfect, you just assume everything you do is perfect, too. And when you remember, and the remorse kicks in, it’s like a razor-legged tarantula crawling upside down in your heart, cursing you in dirty Serbian for being a lame-ass dope fiend who blew every chance he ever had and ended up in the world of incontinence-wear and catheters.” But not to worry, this is the beauty of that dilemma. The narrator of Stahl’s story has a suggestion. “Well, do a little heroin, and you can remember the good things.”
This is a tough crew in these pages, but you will find them human and vulnerable, perhaps more so than your average “normal” functioning being. “Junkies are like veterans,” Stahl writes, “or bikers, or cancer survivors, or ex-cons.” He adds, “Speaking just as a member of Team Dope Fiend, I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been to hell. I may like you, I may respect you, but, when the balls hit the griddle, I’d prefer somebody get my back who’s had experience in my little neck of it.” With this posse in tow, Jerry has no need to worry. They have been to the depths and, like Dante on the wrong road, come back to enthrall you.