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Points Recommends: The Gift of Alcohol and Drug Fiction (and Memoir)

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: As we head into the holidays, the Points staff finds the spirit of the season is indeed upon us.  In other words, we’re all scrambling to wind up our semesters, get our classes ready for January, replace the bulbs in the twinkle lights, make a gingerbread replica of the Unabomber’s cabin, and–oh yeah– finish Christmas shopping.  Figuring that our loyal readers are in the same boat, we’ve compiled a few suggestions with recommendations for the drug and alcohol historians (or fans) on your lists.  Feel free to add your own greatest hits in the “comments” section.

The Thin Man (Knopf, 1934)

Caroline Acker:  I’ve taught Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (Knopf, 1934) many times in my drug history courses. I think every single scene except one actively depicts an aspect of drinking or its effects; it is easy to discern a portrait of a late-stage (but functional!) alcoholic in Nick Charles.  As for drugs, Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi (Grove Press, 1960; rprt. 1993) and Saul’s Book by Paul T. Rogers  (Pushcart Press, 1983) offer gritty, compelling portraits of street addiction in New York. The better known Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh; Secker & Warburg, 1993) is wonderful experimental fiction.  Clarence L. Cooper, Jr.’s 1967 novel The Farm, (Crown, 1967; rprt. Old School Books/W.W. Norton, 1998) set in the Lexington Narcotic Hospital, contains some of the angriest but controlled prose I’ve ever read. Also highly experimental, it anticipates rap. Search it out and buy it for someone very dear to you—but read it before you give it!

Chuck Ambler: Chris Abani’s brilliant novel, Graceland (Picador, 2005) jumps back and forth between rural eastern Nigeria in the 1970s and Lagos in the early 1980s.  It follows a young man, Elvis, sunk in poverty when his dissolute father drags him to the slums and chaos of Africa’s mega-city.  There he pursues a meager career as an Elvis impersonator and finds himself a bit player in the emergence of Lagos as a processing and transshipment center in the global heroin trade.

Brian Herrera: Benjamin Alire-Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Cinco Puntos Press, 2009).  This young adult novel set in a rehab and detailing the unlikely friendship between a young addict and elder mentor is both poetic and powerful.

A Scanner Darkly (Ballantine, 1977)

David Herzberg:  Not all drug books are books about drugs. Some make little effort to convey genuine drug experiences or to make a point about drugs themselves, but still draw on drugs’ cultural power for other narrative or political purposes.  We know about the most famous manifestation of this:  anti-drug literature and films that sensationalize the horrors of addiction to demonize particular social groups. But drug warriors are hardly the only writers to “use” drugs for cultural creativity. Here are a few novels, somewhat randomly selected, in which drugs figure prominently–even crucially–in the narrative, but not necessarily realistically, in expected ways, or for predictable purposes.

  1. China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (Macmillan, 2002).  The “manufacturer” of a drug turns out to be much, much more dangerous than the drug itself in this steampunk/fantasy novel.

  2. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (Picador, 2002).  What if Aslan (yes, the magical lion from the C.S. Lewis series) was available from a major drug company in pill form? What would it be a symbol for? Only one way to find out!

  3. Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (Farrar, Strauss, 1970) and Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls (Bernard Geis, 1966).  Before Prozac, before Valium, there were barbiturates! And the women who took them. Check out an earlier decade’s take on America’s pill-popping culture:  Didion’s is beautifully written and depressing, Susann’s a guilty soap-opera pleasure.

  4. Frank Herbert, Dune (Chilton, 1965).  A very different take on the 1960s dream of drugs changing the world by transforming consciousness. If you read it as sci fi back in the day, read it again as a book about drugs.

  5. Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (Ballantine, 1977).  About as uncomfortably realistic as whacked-out speculative science fiction gets. You’ll never guess who the real bad guys are in what may be the strangest anti-drug novel ever written.

Jesus' Son (Farrar, Strauss, 1992)

Amy Long: Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son paints the era’s preeminent portrait of the heroin addict as a young man in this empathetic but totally unflinching collection of interrelated short stories that trace their protagonist’s path toward an uneasy recovery. Prone to self-deprecating humor and poetic musings, the unnamed narrator of Jesus’ Son never fails to make me laugh out loud and fall in love, but Johnson’s pull-no-punches storytelling and dead-on depictions of depravity, desire, and desperation refuse sentimentality to ensure that the story is as believable as it is engaging. Give this to your hapless brother-in-law, your sister who can’t resist a charming cad, and any English majors in your family (seriously – the sentences are beautiful).

John Barleycorn (The Century Company, 1913)

Michelle McClellan: Jack London, John Barleycorn.  The prose is a delight no matter how many times I read it.  It cannot be easily categorized– autobiography? memoir? fiction?  It works so well in part because present-day readers may feel compelled to resolve the question of “is he or isn’t he an alcoholic?”– and can then ask themselves why it matters so much to diagnose him one way or the other.  Now almost a century old, it reads as both a document of its time and a contemporary depiction of a drinking life.

Trysh Travis: Ann Marlowe, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A-Z (Basic, 1999).  Ann Marlowe’s memoir is the addiction story that never gets told: a Harvard grad with an MBA from Columbia, from the late 1980s through the mid-’90s, she was a successful financial analyst and a recreational heroin user.  When she began to feel that her drug use was negatively affecting her life, she stopped using it without any drama whatsoever.  The book does an excellent job of narrating the pleasures of the drug and of the music scene with which it was intertwined in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, and, more subtly, of interrogating what is now the culture’s standard narrative of drug use and abuse.  Full disclosure: for part of this time I lived in the same neighborhoods Marlowe did, went to the same clubs, and watched the same behaviors take over the lives of friends and acquaintances.  If I’d gotten an MBA instead of a PhD, would I be a trade author now?

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Coming this Thursday: Points recommends non-fiction gift books…



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