More Books on Drugs

Editor’s Note: Readers who enjoyed the fiction recommendations from the Points editorial crew may want to know that a few of the editors did surf the web looking for ideas as we prepared that post. As we perused the many “Best of 2011” lists out there, we came across “The Nobbies”— a compilation of admirable titles pulled together by the folks at The Nervous Breakdown, an online culture magazine and literary community founded by Brad Listi. The list struck us as notable for its heavy proportion of fiction titles that deal with alcohol, drugs, addiction, and recovery, so we thought we’d venture out of the safe precincts of alcohol and drugs history and try and learn a little bit more about contemporary alcohol and drugs fiction.  Listi, himself the author of Attention. Deficit. Disorder— a novel that at least glances at the world of pharmaceuticals– was gracious enough to spend some time helping us think through the issues.

1) A quick perusal of the Nobbies list gives a reader the distinct impression that a lot of these books are about drugs and alcohol, the problems they cause and the ways people solve them.  What percentage of the books on the list deal with those questions?  Which titles?

Coffee House Press, 2011

I’m not entirely sure.  I haven’t read all of the books on the list, which was selected by a variety of people at The Nervous Breakdown.  Certainly several of them deal, at least to some extent, with characters engaging in alcohol and drug abuse and its various consequences.  I can think of one in particular: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, the narrator of which is on a steady diet of pills and wine and hash, and so on.  But that’s not exactly an “addiction novel,” per se.

2) What do you think accounts for contemporary fiction’s continuing–growing?–obsession with these topics?  Is it a market thing– like people know these books will find an audience?  Is it a literary technique things– authors appreciate the formal and narrative things that the conceits associated with addiction allow them to accomplish?  Or what?

I think it’s a reality thing.  Art imitates life.  We live in a world where so many people self-medicate and struggle with various forms of addiction.  The writing community is rife with these problems.  It’s an occupational hazard.  I think it’s inevitable that our literature would reflect this fact.  And on the creative level, characters struggling with substance abuse and addiction are often good fodder for narrative.  Their lives tend to be dramatic.  Addicts engage in extreme behavior and tend to have major unresolved conflicts, both internal and external, and so on.  It’s the stuff of good story.

And I’m sure there might also be a business element to the equation.  Addiction memoirs are a constant in publishing, much like grief memoirs, or the memoirs of soldiers or famous people or sex workers.  This is no accident.  Tales of self-injury and taboo-breaking and violence and fame and tragedy and sex and death and redemption—people like to read about this stuff.

3) We’ve all read bad books of the sort described above.  Can you tell Points readers about a couple of particularly good books–original, insightful, surprising–in this sub-genre, and explain what makes them work for you?

Cool Before DiCaprio (Tombouctou Press, 1978)

David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is a good one.  He’s a reporter for the New York Times, and in the book he actually investigates his own past in a formal, journalistic manner, seeking out friends and family members who witnessed his downfall, and so on.  Asking them questions.  Trying to piece it together. This strikes me as humble and eminentlylogical, as drug abuse tends to have a detrimental effect on one’s memory and sense of self, to say the least.  The Basketball Diaries is an old favorite.  There’s a lyricism and energy and candor to the writing that really rings true.  A drug book without guile or self-protection.   And another one that really rocked me is Methland, by Nick Reding, which explores the meth epidemic through a socioeconomic lens.  It focuses on one town in particular—Oelwein, Iowa—as a way of explaining the broader problem and its roots. [Editor’s note: you can read the Points interview with Nick Reding here.]

4)  I think we can probably agree that midlist (as opposed to pulp) fiction about alcohol and drug issues is a pretty white literary form.  The gender questions seems more tricky.  Would you say that addiction and recovery are, at this point, thematics for “girl’s books” or for “guy’s books”?  Or do they really appear in and work for authors of either gender?

I don’t think gender is factor.  Not in my experience.  And race…I don’t know.   Personally, I’ve never thought of it as a “white literary form,” though maybe the statistics bear that out.  I just don’t know.  It seems to me that these kinds of stories are fair game for anyone to tell, and there are lots of them out there.  How they’re told, exactly, may vary along gender lines or racial lines.  That seems possible.  But at their core I think they tend to be the same:  self-destruction and redemption.  People feeling pain.  People feeling lonely and unlovable.  People trying to fill bottomless holes with pills and smoke and booze.  It’s human stuff.  It knows no bounds.

5) The Points editorial board put together a list of recommended alcohol and drug films for those down times during the holidays just past. You have a degree in film studies; what do you recommend?

Well, if you want to get really hardcore about it, you can’t beat Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), which is an adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel.  Great performances in that one, Ellen Burstyn in particular.  But you’ll probably need to take a shower after watching it.  Days of Wine and Roses is another good one, an old film from 1962.  Jack Lemmon is terrific.  I’m pretty sure he struggled with addiction in real life, and the performance seems to reflect it.  There’s not a better actor.  Trainspotting(1996) is a contemporary classic of the genre.  A nice window into the raging hell of heroin addiction, with a pretty good soundtrack.  There are so many.

Alcoholics Victorious

5 thoughts on “More Books on Drugs”

  1. I’m wondering what midlist fiction focusing on african americans the author has in mind. Also, given the socioeconomic (and race-linked) disparities in our criminal justice system and healthcare system, I’m hoping the author can comment more about how the addiction of a future NYT editor and say, the addiction of a young inner city, poor, black person with little in the way of a support system or educational opportunities are the same “at their core”

  2. I’m no expert, Julia. Not on addiction, nor on addiction literature. I’ve read some of this stuff, but I’d hardly call my intake exhaustive. When I say that addiction memoirs tend to be the same “at their core,” I’m speaking of general narrative arc, not socioeconomic details (or any details for that matter). Usually when someone writes an addiction memoir, they write it from a place of recovery, so the story architecture tends to follow a similar pattern. That’s all I meant to say.

  3. I think this is a really interesting questions that has different answers depending on how you come at it. Unless they are outright celebrations of drug abuse (and even sometimes if they are) most addiction novels and fictions do follow the same narrative arc laid down originally in conversion narratives, which were adapted by temperance advocates and then by Alcoholics Anonymous, which describes their dramatic structure as “what we were like, what happened, what we are like now.” Pretty simple. For a variety of reasons, a key element that has evolved along with that narrative form is the belief that individual agency and personhood, rather than social/structural forces, is the organizing principle of the world. Thus conversion narratives and their progeny de-emphasize social difference to insist that we are all the same “at the core”– and thus can avail ourselves of the same paths to redemption. Contemporary AA and NA literature features stories that make this claim: “despite the fact that I’m black and poor, I found sobriety in AA, in part because I don’t focus on being black and poor but on the fact that I’m human.” But as our leading question to Brad Listi made clear, you don’t see a lot of mid-list fiction or memoir by non-white authors that takes up this narrative. For reasons that should be pretty clear to anyone who takes racial and socio-economic inequality seriously, that narrative is less than compelling to a lot of people (though certainly not all people) on the down side of the scale. And it’s not like the Malcolm X-style recovery story– “I got sober and I got political about the structural forces that had conditioned my drinking/drugging”– has a similarly dominant position among non-white mid-list writers, either. There seems to be something about that “general narrative arc,” as Brad Listi calls it, that appeals to white mid-list authors and book-buyers.

  4. I guess it depends on where (or whether) we locate a story’s core versus its details. Even if the primary character arc remains constant, stories that foreground marginalized social identities and environments can be different to the more purely individualistic narrative in ways that matter to our understanding of the genre (and of addiction). I.e., if recovery doesn’t solve the main problems the narrative has raised, is it still an addiction story? The market tends to answer no, in the way Trysh suggests, and reserve the category for stories most comfortably told by those who don’t need to be very conscious of their social identities. But maintaining the clarity of this category can work both ways; stories can be kept out of it because of their social content, while others can be forced into it by ignoring theirs.
    E.g., a muddier example from the Malcolm X era is Piri Thomas’s memoir, *Down These Mean Streets.* In it, heroin addiction is built out of race, gender, and poverty; it’s not clear at the end whether a sober Thomas has resources (spiritual or social) that are independent of this environment. DTMS is hailed as a groundbreaking race-poverty memoir, but it is one a reader is less likely to be led to through an interest in addiction stories.
    Or take Augusten Burroughs’s Dry, a more recent case. It’s white, male, and upper-middle-class in familiar ways (a vodka-pounding young Manhattan adman needs humbling), but the recovery narrative ultimately gives way to (or serves) the story of gay urban families, AIDS, and grief in the 80s-90s. But this memoir is pitched pretty cleanly as recovery, perhaps because Burroughs’s reputation was as a memoirist of middle-class white domestic life (however messed up).

  5. After 16yrs of cross-addiction(10yrs of smack addiction-2yrs chasing & 8yrs shooting,crack-4yrs, mandrx-14yrs, charlie-2yrs & a variety of party drugs) ive realised you cant generalize and it doesn’t matter how many books u read or movies u’ve watched u’ll nvr EVR undrstnd it unless uve bn thre urself-jst my opinion tho:)

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