January is the time to ring in the New Year by creating new and improved habits. Good habits, however, definitely don’t make for good reading, so this month I have created a list of books about the worst habit of all: drugs. The list that follows is a mix of fictional and biographical tales of drug abuse that will leave you inspired to stay away – or they may pique your curiosity! So put down that crack pipe just long enough to read about other people’s paths through ecstasy and despair from the comfort of your own couch.
If you’re in the mood for some teen reads that go beyond the Go Ask Alice of your youth, try “Candy” by Kevin Brooks, “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins, and “Smack” by Melvin Burgess. My favorite has to be “Smack” as it is similar to “Trainspotting” in setting and topic, but it is far more accessible (no Scottish Brogue to contend with!). “Smack” takes place in industrial Bristol and tells the tale of young heroin addicts: Gemma, Tar, Lily and Rob. What makes “Smack” a riveting read is that the characters come from all different home lives (good and bad), yet all are sucked in by the allure of heroin and choose to steal, squat and prostitute to get their fix. The reader really feels for their plight and learns just how hard it is to kick the habit. “Smack” is so good it won England’s Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize for Fiction.
For some more adult fiction as edgy as the Irvine Welsh or William S. Burroughs you have probably already read, try “Infinite Jest” by David Wallace, “Less than Zero” by Bret Ellis or “Snow White and Russian Red” by Dorota Maslowska. Translated from Polish, “Snow White and Russian Red” is the controversial accomplishment of a nineteen-year-old author. The book tells the story of Andrzej, or “Nails,” and it is obvious that Nails decides not to “choose life.” Instead he chooses copious amounts of speed and spends most of his time dreaming up conspiracy theories about the Polish economy that are quite entertaining. The book immerses the reader in post-communist hopelessness and the volatile relationships that come with youth and drug culture.
If you enjoy a more historical perspective on drugs, try the atmospheric “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” by Thomas De Quincy or “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh. “Confessions” is perhaps one of the first autobiographies that relays a candid confession of drug abuse. In Victorian England laudanum was the drug of choice (think Sherlock Holmes), and De Quincy succumbs. The year is 1821 and the author takes the reader back to his youth, his homeless wanderings around London, when the laudanum begins to take hold and provides a pleasurable respite from his Dickens-like tale of woe. It is not too long before the drug seeps into his life and creates side-effects from hell: nightmares, insomnia, and a range of other insidious symptoms. The book was an overnight success in England.
For some contemporary memoirs try the pair “Tweak” by Nic Sheff (written from the addict’s/son’s perspective) and its partner “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff (written from the father’s perspective). It is a very rare and privileged experience for a reader to read two entire books about the same event as told by different family members. The son, Nic, is brought up in a ‘perfect’ home and is considered ‘bright and athletic’, however hormones set in and rebellion begins. Before long Nic is addicted to meth and must confess to his family and get treatment. His father is at a loss and does everything he can to help his son. The pair of books are powerful reads and offer hope to families that are struggling with addiction.