Heroin memoirs tend to fall into two dicey camps: one the one hand, there are narratives written which glamorize the drug. On the other, we see tales of survival, which often and easily become nothing but tales of didactic caution. It’s a rare writer who’s able to pull off a book-length discussion of drug time without coming across as either show-offy or preachy. Patrick O’Neil is such a writer.
O’Neal logged time and miles working for Flipper and T.S.O.L. in their halcyon days. I admit that this, initially, was the hook that got me reading. There’s relatively little time and ink spent on these experiences, though, focusing instead on the time in which O’Neil developed a heroin habit, and the day-to-day which he went through to feed it. Perhaps this sounds like an odd choice—indeed, O’Neil hints throughout at how much fun he had on the road, how he’s copped dope and had crazy times in pretty much every major city in the country—but it’s one of many well-conceived and -executed choices that the author makes throughout the book.
Certainly, this memoir would have tilted into different territory had the author spent time detailing the early stages of his habit on the road with punk bands in the ‘80s. Rather than doing so, omitting details puts readers in the position of imagining the hi-jinx that came with touring alongside acts legendary for the chaos they brought to the road, kinda like omitting a shot of Gweneyth Paltrow’s head in a box at the end of Seven: whatever a reader can imagine is likely to be more impactful than simply being shown. It’s a neat trick, and one that O’Neil uses throughout his book to gripping effect. In addition to cutting out the tour times, his method of storytelling uses a similar structure: he recollects his life, largely spent in San Francisco, through a series of dated vignettes. These are written throughout in lean prose: O’Neil’s not the kind of writer who worships at the altar of Hemingway, say, or Raymond Carver, making cutting words an exercise in masculinity, but neither is he wasting a single syllable. Again, it’s all about choices: he has a keen sense of just the right detail to illuminate a scene or sentence.
The importance of the dates on the vignettes he provides becomes apparent as he moves through the narrative. Aside from the aforementioned band stuff—and aside from the overdose of his old friend Will Shatter of Flipper—there’s no historical context here. Why would there be? O’Neil and his girlfriend, after all, wrap themselves in the cocoon of feeding their habit daily. The dates are meant to illuminate omission, and the scenes which are included become increasingly harrowing as O’Neil immerses himself more fully in desperation: as a reader, I’m just waiting for the hammer to drop as he becomes increasingly desperate and begins robbing neighborhood stores where he’s recognized as a regular, even banks. But the vignettes are just pieces of the day-to-day. All the days skipped, the ones the author does not provide, are likely just as gnarly and damaged and ultimately pathetic. But rather than stacking them, O’Neil understands that letting the reader realize and ruminate on the press of shivering days and stick-ups is more effective than a grocery list. It must have taken some restraint to make these omissions—as a similar restraint must have been employed to cut all the tour stories—but the strategy is dazzlingly executed.
Since he’s emerged from the depths to write a book about his time as a junkie, there’s a time limit on the whole thing, a fuse which O’Neil realizes the readers aware of. To that end, he starts the novel with the day he’s caught, an implicit nod to the reader: if you’re reading, you know as well as I do that things don’t end well. Let’s get to it.
The omissions, the prose, and the patience with which he tells his frequently disturbing tale all add up to a whole greater than the sum of its excellent parts. Patrick O’Neil is a fantastic writer, and this is a hell of a debut. –Michael T. Fournier (Dzanc Books, 5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103, dzancbooks.org)