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Books / June 8, 2011

I’ve decided to write a sequel to my piece about DFW and American drug lit, and talk about how five Aussie writers have handled the same topic. But don’t worry, most of these people have been published in the US and Britain so this isn’t just for Australians. Bear in mind that I’m a bit patriotic here – two of them get a thumbs-up, two get a thumbs-down and one gets a thumb to the side.

As you can see, I’m counting down here – worst first! Also, since I’ve recently been forced to move thanks to bedbugs, most of my books have either been thrown away or put into storage. So, I’m quoting ALL of the books in this article from memory. It’s been OVER FOUR MONTHS since I read any of them. The wording mightn’t be exact, but I’ve tried hard to keep to the spirit of the prose. It’s also the most I’ll be writing about drugs for the time being. So here’s to a few loose ends.

#5 – Rohypnol by Andrew Hutchinson, 2007

Despite being one of the worst novels ever written by an Australian, Rohypnol somehow managed to win a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (“for Best Unpublished Manuscript”) in 2006. The story goes like this: a bunch of rich kids terrorise inner-city Melbourne by forming a “rape squad.” They find girls, spike their drinks, take them to expensive hotels and, well, rape them.

The problem is that Andrew Hutchinson is a classic brat pack novelist of the Less Than Zero School. He assumes that you can double the shock value of any crime – even rape – by making everyone coolly apathetic about it – even the victims. So, none of the girls in Rohypnol seem to have any problem with getting drugged and gang-banged by a quintet of prep-school sociopaths and one girl even finds it a turn-on. But, since most of the sex acts in the novel don’t seem to go against anyone’s consent, how exactly are they “rape”? That’s the genius behind Hutchinson’s utter idiocy: combining two topics that are horrifying in isolation (rape, apathy towards violence) in a way that miraculously neutralises both of them.

What you’re left with is a story about rich kids having drunken sex, forcing Hutchinson to raise the stakes. Soon his brat pack is bombing railway stations, stealing 18-wheelers and committing vehicular manslaughter. (However, they draw the line with IV drugs – the dangers of playing chicken on an interstate highway with a hot truck are nothing against the menace of opiates.) In the novel’s climax, they accidentally kill one of their nonchalant rape victims and face lengthy prison terms.

Apparently, the reason sexual assault is bad is because it’s a gateway crime leading to grand theft auto, murder and terrorism: “Remember kids – rape only seems like fun until one of you gets hurt!”

As much as Hutchinson wants his book to be some raw, uncompromising tale of wayward youth, it’s not much more than an overpraised schoolie daydream. The leader of the brat pack is described as looking exactly “like Ethan Hawke,” with the rest of the gang having similar movie-star looks, making Rohypnol perfect escapism for zit-denialist sprouts. And guess who the Famous Five choose as one of their few, undisputed rape victims: a stern-but-hot female teacher – that old, reliable Billy Madison fuck fantasy. Her feelings about the rape are never given, but Hutchinson kills many trees describing the (apparently greater) pain of her cuckolded husband.

That’s because Hutch doesn’t really know much about Rohypnol, or tranq amnesia in general. His rapes read suspiciously like those alien abduction stories where the Greys beam their victims up for a couple of hours, anally probe them and wipe their memories. Real sedatives don’t have that sci-fi efficiency. The only way to guarantee zero recollection is to take enough for a TKO. Since the scores of girls molested by Hutchinson’s brats are still able to stagger into their posh apartments, I’d wager that most of them would have sufficient recall to: a) feel violated, and b) supply the police with at least one face or address.

Rohypnol is full of just-don’t-get-it adults asking the boys what their motives are, and that’s a pretty good question. The narrator admits his friends have no trouble getting laid one-on-one, so why commit a complicated crime involving at least four people (spiker, decoy, lookout, driver) just so three of them get sloppy seconds, sloppier thirds, and sloppiest fourths? Worse, the boys’ plan their rapes with so much bad caper movie dialogue that you can almost imagine it as a voiceover, set against a gliding casino-security montage. If you forgot it was all about rape (which isn’t hard) the book would read like one of those teenage super-spy YA novellas.

Just to balance things, Hutchinson has a few chapters where his narrator gives a manifesto for what he calls “the New Punk” (which is just the usual dumbed-down Nietzschean philosophy espoused by every hack from Ayn Rand to Anton LaVey). These chapters carry some of the worst lines in the book (“Fact: Bad people do bad things.”) leaving no doubt that stark, stupid Frey prose has finally infected Aussie literature.

I wouldn’t even be writing about Rohypnol if it hadn’t won a Premier’s Award. According to the State Library of Victoria website, the 2006 judging committee consisted of: Melanie Ostell (senior editor at Text, a major Australian lit-fiction publisher), Chris Thompson (chair of the Victorian Writer’s Centre) and Wayne Macauley (a successful novelist).

Three important figures in Australian literary society, and at least two of them are fools. That ought to speak volumes about Melbourne’s UNESCO “City of Literature” status.

#4 Monkey Grip by Helen Garner, 1977

Written in the late 70s, Monkey Grip is now considered a classic within the vast Aussie genre of share-house lit. The narratrix, Nora, is a whining hippie mother. You know the type: collects stacks of Dr. Spock parenting manuals, accuses everyone of trying to hurt her children while simultaneously telling them to chill out and stop being “neurotic” or “possessive” or whatever pop psychology phrase she’s learned this week. (I’ve got an aunt like that; woman had issues about letting her kids watch Naked Gun movies because they were “too violent.” I’m not remotely kidding. Hippie mums are the biggest fascists you’ll ever meet. It’s thanks to them that Where The Wild Things Are became a bestseller. What a hideous book, too, telling the tykes that any attempt at self-respect is a losing battle – the grown-ups will starve you into obedience in due course, boy! – then compounding the insult by being all whimsical about it.)

Anyway, the action of Monkey Grip revolves around Nora’s relationship with a junkie thespian named Javo. Nora wants Javo to get clean. Javo promises he will. He relapses two minutes later. Nora fumes. Javo promises to get clean, again. He relapses two minutes later. Nora fumes while Javo tries the geographic cure. He comes back, seemingly clean, until Nora finds him stoned with “dead white eyes” (pinned pupils, that is) and tells him she “want[s] his baby blues back.” This goes on, and on, for over 300 pages. I don’t know what incentive Javo had for dating that awful woman, but it seems wounding her vanity makes him some kind of misogynist. Garner should’ve titled the book Why My Postnatal Hippie Vagina Is Better Than Smack (And May the Goddess Roast Any Poor Chauvinist Who Disagrees). Truly, you’d have to be a fool to give up even a tic-tac habit just to stay with her whining, entitled protagonist.

I’m not the only person who hates the book, either. “RA” is an editor friend who works deep in the belly of Melbourne’s nepotistic publishing industry. This was her take on Monkey Grip:

I find the book frightening, because it sounds like it came right out of the head of a friend of mine, if she was living in the 70s. This was a girl who bought a puppy with her boyfriend – a tremendously cute puppy – even though she knew she would be out five days a week studying law, and then got rid of the puppy because it was shitting and pissing everywhere, wasn’t trained. Yeah, and the way she basically ignores her child, and then gets randomly freaked out when she finds a fit [that’s Australian for “syringe”] in the laundry and is like: “Oh my God, my daughter!” I don’t know, their demeanours are so similar.

I’m not honestly sure why this book became a “classic.” Because the hippies said so, I guess. Ageing boomer ladies (the kind who loiter near the La Mama braziers in full “When shall we three meet again?” mode) still have enough clout to make everyone else listen to why theirs is the Generation of Generations.

The dimmer elements of Gen-Y are impressed by the novel for different reasons. See, Helen Garner had the good luck to mention lots of Melbourne restaurants that haven’t gone out of business yet – the University Cafe, Lambs Kebabs, Shakahari. This gives her work that patina of name-dropping “realism” that Bret Easton Ellis fans adore. (“Hey, there’s still a Pastis in Lower Manhattan; this guy was spot on!”) I recall one young book reviewer telling me that Monkey Grip hadn’t “lost its relevance” for this alone.

That should be a lesson for all you hacks: keep your Good Food Guide close and you won’t go hungry.

#3 The Complete Works of Christos Tsiolkas

I’m putting this guy right in the middle. There’s plenty he’s done right, and plenty he’s done wrong. Tsiolkas specialises in what you might call the Amphetamine Novel of Ideas – lots of plots, scenarios and philosophising, but not much in the way of style or anything that rewards close readers. This isn’t surprising, because he’s cited Dick as an early inspiration (though a minor one) and he’s done a ton of speed. And he’s written some good suburban-marital dramas that, just occasionally, remind me of PKD’s great divorce stories, like Clans of the Alphane Moon or “The Pre-Person”… I could go on).

His fiction has also gone a long way towards stripping back the fuzzy SBS view of Aussie multiculturalism and showing the rainbow of racisms that this country really is. It’s rare to find a migrant writer who can totally resist the temptation to cutesify his people and pimp them out to the Anglos. And Tsiolkas does pretty well at dis-endorsing the Greek community, giving a huge “fuck you” to the wogs of his generation (1965-) who “integrated” by absorbing the worst prejudices of the dominant Anglo group while selling themselves as cheerful Big Fat Moussaka Chefs. Sabotaging your own group’s upward mobility like that takes balls!

Sadly, Tsiolkas is also one of those novelists whose fiction is more honest than his non-fiction. That’s because of a wonderful loophole – the supposed difference between “author” and “narrator” – which allows writers to use their novels as sandboxes for all sorts of notions that could get them into trouble if they were presented as personal opinions. And there’s no greater sandbox than the Amphetamine Novel of Ideas. This leaves Australia with two Tsiolkases – Sandbox Tsiolkas, the chronicler of bigoted suburbia, and Saturday Age Tsiolkas, who writes timid reflective essays in dawdling PC-speak while praising Evelyn Waugh and Ingmar Bergman (just to reassure the boomers reading The Monthly that he’s on their side).

His Waugh adoration appears on a side-project of The Monthly called “SlowTV.” That name says a lot more about the arts in Australia than its creators would guess, since I suspect the biggest sin of Aussie film and literature is droopy, ponderous Melancholy – it’s everywhere! Sullying every bookshelf like a spotty black fungus!

Personally, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this “melancholy” thing. To me it’s a weird, semi-fictional emotion, a bit like sadness only – alas! – more vacant and artsy. And slower, the kind of thing indie directors really dig, filming all those twilit scenes of people looking weary while the crickets chirp behind them. I can’t recall many Australian Gen-Xers who went for McSweeneyite gimmickry, but the trade-off was getting infected by the black mould. Now, Aussie literature is a garden of snail-sluts, creatures who find opinionless reflective essays “thoughtful” precisely because the wafflers who write them are too “mature” to take sides. And the only way for a perceptive author like Tsiolkas to survive in such an environment is probably to absorb a few snail-slut mannerisms himself. I guess I can forgive that.

He has more serious flaws, though. For starters, he mentored Andrew Hutchinson as part of some programme and donated two (!) blurbs to the cover of Rohypnol. (Both authors are published by Vintage.) There are also moments when he lays the grunge on a bit too thick. The narrator of his third novel, Dead Europe, complains that his room in an Athens backpacker hostel is cheaply painted. Nu, you get what you pay for!

Later, visiting Prague, he complains that the city’s lost its, um, authenticity, or something. This is from memory and not an exact quote, but I swear it’s the best reconstruction I can do after the bed bug disaster:

“When I first came here after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Czech girl ran up to me in the street and kissed me. ‘Can you taste the freedom on my lips?’ she said. But now there was a dirty McDonalds in the middle of Wenceslas Square and prostitutes and (grunge), with (grunge) lining the (grunge).”

Here, Tsiolkas’ narrator isn’t really mourning Prague’s lost innocence. He’s mourning his lost Godhood, the time when he could get any Slav in bed with him just by waving a pair of old Levis around. And sweet Lord! A McDonalds among the fairy castles of Praha?!? Don’t rob me of my sacred illusions!

Still, Tsiolkas recovered and wrote a better book called The Slap, which pissed off all the right people, from grammar fascists to pro-suburban chirps who found it “implausible” that so many grotesque, drug-addicted wogs could fart around at one family barbecue. Thank heaven for that.

#2 Candy by Luke Davies, 1996

Luke Davies is a Sydney author who was a junkie for about a decade and wrote a novel called Candy based on that period. As I said in my Foster Wallace piece, it’s not a perfect novel. Davies is pretty much on the AA side of the recovery debate, so the opening and closing chapters are gloomy as all hell. But the guy has much more drug cred (and desperation cred) than DFW, making it a decent book overall.

I may as well start with the pitfalls, though.

Candy’s biggest flaw is it’s a first novel written by a poet. Not just any poet, but a fan of Baudrillard and Virilio whose favourite words are “gravity,” “velocity” and “momentum.” According to his publisher’s website, Davies was reading pretentious French theory even back in his junkie days. So Candy has a few pointless, hyper-lyrical sections where the narrator won’t stop wanking on about flowers, pollen, momentum, gravity, passage-of-time metaphors, fluid mechanics, et cetera. Luckily for us, Davies seems aware of the issue. So whenever you see a chapter where all the words are in Italics, that means “Optional.” Strictly for snail-sluts.

The other problem with Candy is the clumsy way it mixes realistic autobiographical scenes with much weaker fictional material. Davies more or less based the narrator on himself, but then decided to disenfranchise him a bit more than he needed to. No university degree, no Froggy theory, no writing aspirations – no aspirations at all, in fact. When he first develops a habit, Candy’s narrator seems to make money solely from dealing. (Davies was a newspaper cadet.) When he finally dries out, he describes himself as a “blank slate” with no idea what he wants to do with his life. (Davies, as I said, was planning a literary career long before he got clean.) To really prole things up, Davies makes his hero utter awkward boganisms (“You can’t sit on your arse and slide uphill.”) just to remind us he’s all-Aussie. But still he goes on about gravity, momentum, velocity, light reflecting in “scallops” from a pool, flowers, insects, cross-pollination. One moment he’s a directionless yob; next he’s Marcel Proust.

He also has a junkie girlfriend (the titular Candy) who doesn’t always work as a character. Sometimes she has a distinct, separate personality from the narrator. (During shouting matches, mostly.) Other times, she’s more like an imaginary girlfriend, a raft of erotic similes, the standard Song-of-Solomon machinery: hair like fields of wheat, deep blue eyes like pools of water. (Junkies nearly always have blue eyes in literature. Especially if they’re beautiful, melancholy junkies. Makes it easier for their sober love interests to walk in on them pinned, gasping in horror.)

Taken as a whole, Candy feels artificially sewn-together, a Frankenstein monster of a novel. But then, who said you had to take it as a whole? That’s where the book redeems itself, since it’s less of a novel than a short story collection with recurring characters – ‘Dad and Dave’ on dope. Yes, there’s a chronological order to the stories, a melancholy sense of the characters sinking lower and lower towards rock bottom over ten years. But their descent is so gradual you could probably swap a third of the chapters around without changing much. That’s the kind of book it is: a bunch of mostly autonomous sketches revolving around two characters.

Storytelling like this (where every episode begins and ends with the same great, immortal Situation) is really meant for comedy – whether it’s The Simpsons or highbrow stuff like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet. On the other hand, I haven’t heard of any successful situation tragedies. (A tragedy, by definition, has to end far worse than it began.) That’s why Davies should’ve ditched the melancholy when he had the chance, traded the black bile for more black comedy.

Still, once you skip over the italicised prose poetry, Candy is a funny, well-written book. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, it’s about two characters who hatch a long succession of failed schemes. They grow a marijuana crop (only to get ditched by their self-righteous pothead accomplice). They steal wallets from closetcases in public toilets. They run a homebake laboratory. They nearly get killed by a meth-addicted police inspector. They raise a litter of cats and accidentally starve them. And none of it’s that far-fetched. If anything feels weird, it’s the sheer number of schemes, rather than the schemes themselves – the novel reads like a compendium of every means that junkies have ever had of making a buck. Except, of course, white-collar employment.

And, while there are a few anti-drug sentiments at the beginning and end of the book – as with death porn anthologies or old-fashioned libertine novels, you always need a moral preface – the self-pity quickly evaporates once the sketches appear. Davies’ characters don’t have any fake remorse for the ordinary fuckin’ Australians they rob. They’re Ubermenschen (real Ubermenschen, not some pot-bellied, libertarian tycoon-heroes who get called “brave” for announcing wage-cuts) and they damn well know it. Why shouldn’t they feel superior? Most junkies have far more willpower than the average battler: a mix of monkish frugality and crazed pain endurance. You wouldn’t know this from a lot of US literature, though, which shows them as a race of regretful, nail-biting invertebrates. DFW certainly couldn’t stop taking cheap shots at them for cumming prematurely. (Always with the sex, huh?)

After you get through the moral boilerplate, Candy’s narrator has the sort of elite vor pride junkies have in real life. The non-users in the book are mean, stupid, and flabby. (Limonov’s phrase, “the goat herd,” immediately comes to mind.) They’re also damn miserable. In one chapter, the junkies get a phone call from a depressive trying to reach a suicide helpline. Candy sweet-talks the guy, agrees to “date” him, and milks thousands of dollars out of him while the narrator pretends to be her “gay friend.” In another chapter, the narrator snatches a closetcase’s wallet. Knowing the guy will cancel his cards soon, he phones him to apologise, claiming he’s “new in town,” “very lonely,” and willing to return everything the next morning. (What is it with gay guys and thieves, anyway?) This stalls the victim long enough for our narrator to clean out three bank accounts and an insurance policy. And despite having suffered my share of rip-offs, and even a rare, one-time mugging, by junkie-jocks like him, I fucking cheered.

Davies may have gotten enough pain from cops and withdrawal to call his addiction a “decade of darkness,” but he doesn’t pretend it made him into a loser, or that “dope is for dopes.” Unless, by “dope,” you mean marijuana. The chapter titled “Crop Failure” has one of the finest attacks on comfortable, pot-smoking squares I’ve read since Burroughs’ Junky. In it, the narrator grows weed with a preachy slacker-bro named Mason who gives him useless advice – “Just stay off that junk,” he chirps – before ditching him out of sheer bigotry.

You’ll probably like Candy if you’ve read and enjoyed Hans Fallada’s stories about Weimar-era morphinists. Same nervous rhythm, especially in the long scene where the narrator goes from bank to bank, withdrawing cash from hot credit cards, dorking it up in front of the tellers (“How are we all this morning?”) and hoping he won’t be arrested.

And even if you can’t stand the italicised prose-poems, at least they keep the wankier stuff away from the vulnerable, vulnerable story. Not every author has the decency to use snail enclosures.

#1 In My Skin by Kate Holden, 2005

Not sure if this is the most honest addiction memoir ever written, but it’s the most honest one to have become a bestseller. In My Skin’s about a five year period when Kate Holden was addicted to smack and working as a hooker in Melbourne. The prose is pretty so-so – same fashionable melancholy you’ll find everywhere else in Australian literature – but the book says a lot of things I haven’t heard from any US bestsellers.

“Here are the pros and cons of taking heroin and selling sex to strangers. Maybe it’s for you and maybe it isn’t.”

Just one example: Holden’s motivations for quitting. In a typical US bestselling memoir, the addict only does it after some kind of near-death experience – getting their face cut into chunks like Frey “did,” or OD’ing like Nikki Sixx. And if a memoir has a person going sober after one pissant miscalculation, it’s usually either: 1. fake, or, 2. written by someone who didn’t have much to quit. (Davies even makes fun of it in a chapter called “Candy’s First Overdose,” where everyone jokes about it after the girl regains consciousness and the narrator considers it one of the happiest times of their life together.) What about Holden? Well, she quits mostly out of boredom and exhaustion.

That’s what I’ve always found curious about this book. Why has it taken so long for someone to write an undramatic memoir about the life of a completely ordinary addict, not a celebrity, not a criminal, just an average Melbournian? It’s not the subject matter. Everyone likes to read about whoring and drugs.  I’m also not sure any reviewers really noticed Holden’s biggest accomplishment: just writing down what happened. Really, just writing it down. No trying to be tough, or worse, “literary.”

There’s a big advantage to just writing it down. Holden reminds me of people I’ve actually known. That is, regular middle-class junkies. I can’t say the same for Burroughs or Davies. Even the middle-class ex-junkies I know read Junky for escapism, not self-recognition.

Kate Holden, though, really is the gal for her time and place: the Melbourne of Generation X. As any newspaper review of her work will tell you, she came “from loving parents” (that is, middle-class ones). She took Classics and English at the University of Melbourne (exact same majors as me), lived in a bunch of share houses, dresses entirely in black, hangs around cafes, likes historical fiction and Italian stuff, leans towards the Greens politically. Perfect specimen, then, neither hugely better nor worse than anyone else from the same background. (Except she was also a junkie whore for five years, so I suspect she’d hold her ground in a lot of situations where Bret Easton Ellis would pee his pants, Irvine Welsh would shit himself and James Frey would curl into a foetal position around Ellis’s warm wet trouser cuff.)

Holden’s addiction story happened like this. She spent the 90s sharing a series of houses in St. Kilda, which was one of Melbourne’s druggiest districts back then. Her boyfriend hung around with junkies and introduced her to smack, which didn’t impress her the first time she tried it. But she underestimated the stuff and eventually became an addict. After a while, her habit got too expensive to keep working in retail, so she became a whore, first on the street, then in a legal brothel. Several years followed, full of the usual brothel politics – girls sniping at the managers and each other, complaining about Indians – and a large mix of clients (some decent, some dickheads) until Holden quit through methadone.

She tried heroin one final time and found it did nothing but make her tired. That’s another truth you’ll rarely read in commercial memoirs: some people’s physiology really changes like that. Opiates don’t do anything for them ever again no matter how hard they try to abuse them. It happened to a friend of mine: she quit dope, got prescribed pain meds six years later – pain meds she would’ve killed for in her addict days – and felt nothing. Just nausea. That’s how undramatic it can be.

Here’s something else you’ll hear from Holden that I’ve rarely found in other memoirs: in the five years she worked as a brothel prostitute, nobody noticed. It’s not like she was a PA or an accountant or some other kind of white collar addict. This is whoring we’re talking about – one of the smackiest industries around, along with nursing, modelling and freelance IT. If anyone could spot a Limbaugh in the ranks, surely a whore could, right? Wrong! Holden stayed incognito for five years – it was only when she started tapering off methadone that they began suspecting she was “on something,” for completely wrong reasons. Goes to show.

Need any more proof that Holden’s memoir is doing something right? Look no further than the 2-star comments on her Amazon page. According to a reviewer from somewhere in the Bay Area:

Although I appreciate the author’s writing style, I had trouble with this book. Ms. Holden is a gifted writer – her phrasing has a floating, melodic quality, which harmonizes well with her dreamlike account of heroin addiction. But her story feels so removed from the horror of her past life, as if she is disassociated from her emotions. She seems so blase about her years of prostitution and heroin use, and comes across as blithe and even proud regarding her past.

[…]

She eventually goes straight and it seems that her sole reason for getting clean is that she became bored with her lifestyle.

Outrage! How dare that hussy quit drugs without losing at least three extremities to gangrene! What kind of example is she giving our children?!

Another hater calling themselves “BayAreaReader” wrote this:

I found it sad that an obviously bright young woman could derive self-esteem from a) being “brave” enough to shoot heroin and b) being “adored” by men who were paying her for sex. It seems rather backwards. Why not derive your self-esteem from your education, intelligence, talents and loyal family? Apparently these things are what drove her into the seedy world of drugs and prostitution? The writing style got tedious – how many times can she refer to the light as thin??? Or shooting up as a “taste?” I also felt like the book lacked credibility. How much of the details can be authentic if she was using heroin four to six times a day? I imagine she would have been more like a zombie than the energizer sex bunny she portrays herself to be.

What crap!!!!!! Claiming that ijnecting herion makes people feel brave!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Is she just trying to addict people or something?????? Everyone knows H is the drug of wintry cwoardice. Causes full-body chills upon injection. AND FEAR! #ven just seeing a hamster is enough to make a person curl into a ball once they’ve taken it. And how could this woman get self-esteem from a job that gives her $700 a night??????? She should be proud of her arts degree – i dunno what kind of work she’d get from that but I’m sure they’d pay her just as mutch. I’m guessing a “taste” is some Austrian slang word for a shot of hieron, but who wants to read a whole book in spoken vneracular English?????? How could she remember anything, anyway, after SIX doses of that junk????? I took ONE inoncent litle Abmien tqenty minutes ago and I’m not sure what I wrote just a couple of snetences back, even though it’s right in fornt of me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! & theyre both downerz, right???>?>>?

I don’t know why these Californians hate her so much, but down here she suffered from the opposite. The squares fell in love with her. While talking at a girls’ private school Holden was apparently surprised to find half the girls had already read her. Seems their parents had given them her book to warn them off drugs. Christ, had they bothered to read it first? Practically all of Holden’s problems were due to illegality. If they sold dope at 7/11, her life mightn’t have been too different from Louisa May Alcott’s: “Better have a shot before breakfast, then scribble up another chapter about the March sisters. Today it will be ‘Amy’s Valley of Humiliation.’ Drat! Drat! DRAT! Wherever did I place that bejewelled hypodermic? Here, fittikins! Here!”

In My Skin would also be a poor purchase if you want your kids to believe all poisons are instantly addictive. Holden’s habit took months to develop. And what about that dastardly final fate of the confirmed drug fiend? Death? No, the other one – the one that happens to girls. Holden didn’t find it that bad.  If there’s anything the book adds up to, it’s: “Here are the pros and cons of taking heroin and selling sex to strangers. Maybe it’s for you and maybe it isn’t.”

Unfortunately, after seeing five years of sobriety and the publication of her memoir, Holden fell into some real white slavery – lecture circuiting; in schools. And when lecturing minors is part of your income, you can’t really be too decisive about the War on Drugs. Even worse for an ex-junkie – if you call for an end to prohibition, you risk getting typecast and having your sobriety questioned. Holden’s also gotten herself a lazy weekend column at The Age, turning into, I guess, a Catherine Devenipuncture of sorts. It’s a waste of her potential. She knows it. But at least she’s getting paid.

But when she does get into politics, you can see how carefully she’s forced to step around the issues. Recently, Holden wrote an article for Crikey! titled “Lots of people like drugs, try asking them about it.” I’d never think she was the author if her name wasn’t on it. Who, besides a dweeby Parliamentary speechwriter, would ever say “Drugs make you high but we must work with the real world”? Probably thanks to those pesky lecture obligations, Holden never gives her own view about what should be done about the Drug War. The closest she gets is arguing that society should “start listening to drug users.” (Well doesn’t that include her?)

If you can’t see the full problem, picture this: it’s Chicago at the end of 1929. Al Capone massacred some people in February. The economy crashed in October. Booze prices are horrendously inflated. Once in a while, someone drinks methylated spirits by mistake, goes blind and dies. But now, at the eleventh hour, an ex-lush steps in with a Tribune opinion piece.  “If we want to engage with these issues,” she tells us, “we need to start listening to drinkers.” (Gosh, I wonder what advice these people might give! Maybe they’d say: “Prohibition is an absolute fucking failure – scrap it, now!” I don’t know myself, personally. But they’re sitting on a piece of the puzzle; that’s for sure.)

Even the bravest writers can get caught in the cloying slime of Escargotville. That really is a melancholy thought.

Ramon Glazov lives and writes in Perth, Western Australia. Email him at “ramonglazov at gmail dot com”

Want to know more? Read Ramon Glazov’s: “David Foster Wallace: Portrait of an Infinitely Limited Mind” and “Inside Wikileaks: Revenge of the Second Banana.”

 

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28 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. anon  |  June 8th, 2011 at 11:47 am

    “Why has it taken so long for someone to write an undramatic memoir about the life of a completely ordinary addict, not a celebrity, not a criminal, just an average Melbournian?”

    It’s probably because, in spite of the Exile’s rampant drug boosterism (and Lord forgive me because I do love this paper dearly) drugs are relatively alien to the kind of people who tend to read books.

    I also have to say I’ve never understood the furor about taking or not taking them. I don’t see why a person is more interesting because of what he’s slipping up intravenously. Unlike Ramon, the behavior of his “junkie-jocks” doesn’t earn much more than a breath from yours truly: they just seem like a bunch of capricious wasters. I admire their inclination towards death, but like Houellebecq says: “I’m afraid of mad people”.

  • 2. hahaohwow  |  June 8th, 2011 at 11:51 am

    fantastic.

    very interested in “candy”.

  • 3. anon  |  June 8th, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    @1

    Houellebecq is afraid of people in general. As well as a bunch of other stuff, his own dick probably included.

  • 4. Cernunnos  |  June 8th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I hope you’re not implying there’s something wrong with praising Ingmar Bergman.

  • 5. spark  |  June 8th, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Glazov:

    Get a “Packtite”. It kills bedbugs in books.

  • 6. Dimitri Ratz  |  June 8th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    A definite must read before deciding if heroin is right for you. Wish there was a book as good as that about Rock climbing.

  • 7. SweetLeftFoot  |  June 8th, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    I quite liked this and as a Melburnian who has read all these books, I’ll respond with more detail in a bit.

    Not that anyone cares what the fuck I have to say, but I’m an annoying pedant so let me say that: The pic at the top is wildly inaccurate. In Australian, heroin is china white and is clear in the spoon, not like that dirty brown shit you’ve shown.

    Please fix (pun intended)

  • 8. Mr B  |  June 8th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    That was an excellent read Ramon, thank you.

  • 9. firefly67  |  June 9th, 2011 at 4:27 am

    Funny writing! I must admit never having read any of these tomes & don’t think I want to, now. The people in them don’t sound like anybody I’d want to hang out with.

    But just for the record: not all old hippies are neurotic idiots. Some of us survived those years with our minds and our sense of the ridiculous unscathed. How else would it be possible for me to read this essay and laugh as I’m doing?

    That’s the one thing the post-hippie drug users missed, never understood, or just forgot – we were all about having fun and maybe learning something about whomever you found yourself with – and about laughter and trust. Not angst and addiction! The Beats had already covered that ground, no need to do it again don’t you think?

  • 10. anon  |  June 9th, 2011 at 4:57 am

    @4

    “I hope you’re not implying there’s something wrong with praising Ingmar Bergman.”

    Have you ever realized that people only talk about “Ingmar Bergman”, and not one of his films, because none of them were popular enough to gain name recognition? That would be a loud enough warning sign to ward off lemmings, but listen to some of his film titles: “Secrets of Women”, “Scenes from a Marriage” (ugh), “Hour of the Wolf”, “In the Presence of a Clown”. You couldn’t pay me to watch even ten minutes of any of that crap.

  • 11. Strelnikov  |  June 9th, 2011 at 8:38 am

    When it comes to drugs, the idiots who write at Amazon want to believe the in the worst, most hoary scare stores ever told by NA or AA or the various US gov’t. anti-drug campaigns. And it’s become a requirement that if a novel or memoir be about drugs or even mention them, that the drugs somehow screw up or mangle the protagonist or other characters. My point is that once something is done in a certain sort of book, everybody else tries to copy it, and it become a cliche. You see this in the memoirs of Vietnam War jet pilots; the first couple were snarky and bitter that “we were fighting with one hand tied behind our back”, then the bitterness got more and more sour, so that pilots who flew in 1966-68 already were decrying the “stab in the back” from the hippies and Middle America. The books written in the late 1980s were insanely bitter about what it was like to fly over Indochina in 1972-74. And remember, these are pilots; they may have lost friends, or tried to help in recovery operations for downed pilots, but they never saw the bombing at ground level, and most never had to shoot a man and watch him fall. Any combat was between them and the occasional MiG fighter or the vast sea of gun and SAM emplacements in North Vietnam. It is a vastly different literary world from “Thud Ridge” (1969) to books like “Flight of the Intruder” or “Phantom over Vietnam” (both `80s books) or the more recent “War For the Hell of It” (which is both madly bitter and crazily right wing.)

  • 12. I'll never work in this town again  |  June 9th, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    “The leader of the brat pack is described as looking exactly “like Ethan Hawke”

    Describing your character’s appearance by invoking actors is the fucking laziest, lamest wheeze in the bad novelist’s toolbox, use of which would carry the death penalty in a just or sane universe.
    And then after that the reader is supposed to find the drug use believable? Sheeeeit.

  • 13. akakij "third way" akakievich  |  June 10th, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Kate Holden is a real WA WA WEE WA!!!

  • 14. Cernunnos  |  June 10th, 2011 at 10:51 am

    @10

    Umm… no I haven’t noticed that actually, because The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona are constantly talked about by film nerds. Also, Hour of the Wolf is one of the best horror films ever made. I can’t be held responsible for lame hipsters who bandy about Bergman, but that’s not reason to hate on one of the best filmmakers of all time and his depictions of emotional breakdown and petty human cruelty are worlds more powerful than the kind of shite reviewed in this article.

  • 15. Will  |  June 10th, 2011 at 11:45 am

    @ 10

    I liked “The Seventh Seal” and my buddy introduced it to my by name. I’ve heard provincial pseudo-intellectuals toss the name around just to sound cool, and I can see how the recurring theme of the nonexistence of god might get old, but it’s not all bad.

  • 16. Cernunnos  |  June 10th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Plus most of his films with the God theme are from the ’50s and early ’60s. It’s not like it was done to death at the time. With maybe the exception of the highly blasphemous L’Age d’Or and Eisenstein’s Soviet montage films, pre-WWII had very little in the way of “death of god” themes.

  • 17. Zhu Bajie  |  June 10th, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    “I hope you’re not implying there’s something wrong with praising Ingmar Bergman.”

    Some of his films are not as boring as “Valhalla Rising.”

  • 18. Derek  |  June 11th, 2011 at 4:25 am

    I just have to say that there are things you learn as a whore that you never unlearn, because they can serve you well even when you don’t have a dick in your mouth. Probably number one is you might as well get paid for doing something you might not care about but would probably be doing for free anyway. Like telling stories about when you used to be a junkie whore, or talking about drugs. For better or worse, I bet that’s an important lesson Ms. Holden’s learned and it sounds like she’s putting it into practice.

    That’s why I laughed when you mourned over how she currently gets paid. It’s the same profession, but better hours. She doesn’t care about changing the world or laws. She’s just a wallowed out lit major ex-whore doing what she’d be doing anyway, but for a paycheck.

  • 19. Nique Needles  |  June 12th, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Not a book, but a film, starring the great aussie masturbator, Michael Hutchence – Dogs in Space deserves some sort of mention. Set in Melbourne as Skylab fell out of the sky in the late 70s, it’s more a story about dabblers than junkies. Which I guess is different from most of the reviewed books. The dabbler dies of an OD, still pretty and without the cliche of having to sell his/her soul for the habit…it’s been so long I can’t remember whether the guy or girl carked it…but it doesn’t really matter.
    It’s a movie that’s probably dated, it doesn’t preach, but revolves around the attractions of junk, lust and being young. Yeah someone dies and I guess there’s a warning, but someone could’ve died in the well staged drunk-driving incident too(or was that another movie?).
    I spose the end of the movie would’ve been more fitting if the girlfriend came into the room and found Hutchence taking his last breath, cock-in-hand, dangling from the cupboard door…wanking can be quite dangerous, and should probably be outlawed.

  • 20. Independentmuff  |  June 13th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I’d avoided “The Slap” out of a dread that it would be nothing but middle class Australian ennui… (ex Sydneysider)and wasn’t it praised on Tuesday Book Club – do I dare?
    p.s. Maybe a write up of “Felafel”?

  • 21. Big Nose Kate  |  June 13th, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Didn’t see Andrew McGahan in here, either because a) alcohol is not a drug and/or b) McGahan is actually pretty good.

  • 22. JohnFigler  |  June 14th, 2011 at 4:31 am

    How much does that Kate Holden asks for a ride?

    I’ll pay it.

    Are all the girls in Melbourne like that one?

    Time for a trip to the South Pacific…

  • 23. Leig  |  June 14th, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Anal is $150, but only if you have a monster cock.

  • 24. pete  |  June 19th, 2011 at 5:17 am

    @21
    McGahan! I found his books pretty much unreadable. Sever editing required.

    @19
    Hutchence was such a tosser in Dogs in Space. Always sneaking coy glances at the camera and playing with his hair. He desperately needed a director to tell him to “KEEP YOUR FUCKING HANDS DOWN”

    Great article Ramon!

  • 25. jim  |  June 20th, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I’ve always avoided ‘In My Skin’ like the plague as a direct result of Holden’s personal reflective, “literary” contributions to The Age. She reads like a compendium of everything I hate about Australian letters (what? all 26 of them!? soz, couldn’t resist – ed).
    It is pleasantly surprising to hear her being praised by someone as obviously allergic to the montage of melancholic, profoundly-inflated-sense-of-self-and-cosmic-significance-over-a-luke-warm-latte moments that seem to get praise, publishing, and movie deals around here… I may even read the book one day.
    Although it’s still unlikely because I’ve met far too many boring people who thought/think that shooting smack instantly elevates them into sort of terribly exciting, rebel elite that nobody else could possibly understand (without reading their memoirs, of course). I don’t care if you are a junkie CPA… you’re still a fucking CPA…
    Personally I’d rather take some acid and watch the grass grow, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write a book about it.

  • 26. geriatric  |  June 22nd, 2011 at 11:23 am

    what about andrew mcgahan? please skewer him, i LOVED him when i was a melbourne uni arts student and wore black and hung out at tiamo all the fucking time in the 90s.

  • 27. Tyler  |  November 13th, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    ‘…because Hutch doesn’t really know much about Rohypnol, or tranq amnesia in general. His rapes read suspiciously like those alien abduction stories…’

    1. Are you saying you know more? Is that because you googled it? We’re all experts, right?
    2. Do you have a novel out? Probably not or you wouldn’t have a shitty blog.
    3. If you portray facts wrong about the stories (as you did many times) arn’t you the hack that can’t even produce a honest review, let alone something of actual value?
    4. The same way that saying one of your leading charicter looks like Ethan Hawk, writing how a writer comes from this or that school of thought and compairing it to another book is equally as lazy. Why right about whats right and whats wrong, if it doesn’t stop you from making the same mistakes.

    Maybe you should go get a real degree and spend your time on something worth while.

  • 28. JingleBells  |  November 23rd, 2011 at 2:30 am

    Slimy toad


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