Vanity Fair profiles The eXile: "Gutsy...visceral...serious journalism...abusive, defamatory...poignant...paranoid...and right!"
MSNBC: Mark Ames and Yasha Levine
Broke the Koch Brothers' Takeover of America
Featured / March 25, 2010
By John Dolan

Top of the World

This is the third installment of John Dolan’s work-in-progress, “Stupid, Or How To Lose Money Running A Speedlab.” Read part two here.

It was time to cook up our batch of speed. We were going to do the cooking at a rickety old  house my mother owned in Benicia, just over the bridge from Martinez. Benicia is one of those sad historical towns. It was the capital of California for a while until Sacramento up the river bribed someone to steal the title. There are a lot of plaques all over Benicia to remind you of the great defeat, and photos of Civil-War-era camels. The town was the headquarters of the California Camel Corps, one of the U.S. Army’s nineteenth-century boondoggles. They imported dromedaries to cross the great American deserts, momentarily forgetting that there was this thing called “railroads” that could do it faster. The camels were redlined from the budget and shot.

California is full of places like that. It’s surprisingly easy to lose your shirt there. It just doesn’t make the news. People who succeed are news, people who fail aren’t news unless someone dies in the process. And even then it better be someone who’s succeeded. The difference between the two groups is very stark there. It wasn’t until I went to New Zealand, a place where no one is really famous, that I could even consider the notion that non-famous people could have lives.

Butler wanted to inaugurate our lab with a kind of ceremonial film showing, an anthemic movie that would set the tone. I loved that idea and instantly suggested  Scarface, which I’d seen three times already. To go out like Tony Montana leaving a trail of dead Bolivians, you couldn’t ask anything better than that. Face down in the pool. Get it over with once and for all. But to my surprise Butler winced and demurred. Risky Business, he said, would be a better choice. Scarface was a little too heavy. Risky Business was more what we wanted to be, it had a light side to it. And Rebecca DeMornay leading a cast of thousands of cheerful prostitutes. We watched Tom Cruise in his first big role, playing a college student turned pimp to pay off the damage his friends do to his parents’ house when they’re away.

This was when America fell in love with Tom Cruise doing air guitar in the family mansion. That movie made mansions normal, compulsory. If you don’t have a mansion, why not?

And we were out to get ourselves mansions. That was the point: money. I’d never thought about money much. Glory seemed infinitely preferable, and the life of a famous impoverished band, taking all kinds of glorious drugs and having all kinds of glorious sex on mattresses in a trashed apartment, infinitely preferable to the dumb, churchy, boring prosperity of the rich suburbs.

But then came Reagan and we all changed our minds. I don’t know how or why everybody flip-flopped so quickly and so easily. It’s not like there was a big debate about it.  The movies instructed us, the columns in the SF papers instructed us. B.M.W.’s and big fake Victorian houses and sheer funds became sexy, in a couple of years. You had to adjust.

Hence me and Butler carrying box after box of supplies into my parents’ house.  Butler  took care of the light, or as he put it, ‘delicate’ items: retorts (the chemical kind), beakers, and other glassware. Then I drove him back to Bongoburgers in Berkeley. He was going to stay there for the seven days it would take to cook up the stuff. I had his recipe, photocopied from an old German chemist’s notes – the closest thing to the Necronomicon you were going to get in this existence. I’d stay in Benicia while he held the fort in Berkeley.

That’s how dumb I was. Mister Felony, sitting there cooking up the stinkiest and most toxic drug known to man by myself while Butler had cappuccino and read the paper at Mediterraneo .

The excuse I gave Terry and Marian and the rest of my friends at Bongoburgers was that I needed to work on my Ph.D. dissertation in seclusion. It made no sense to any of them, but they were busy at their own avid, senseless lives, all of which have turned out at least as badly as mine. And I kind of think that they were all so damned tired of hearing about Heidi and how she done me wrong, and Paul and how I done him wrong, that my absence must have seemed like a lucky break for everyone.

I was halfway through the Sade dissertation. I’d been planning to write on Wallace Stevens, whom I loved, whose poems I’d memorized long before anybody else thought they were any good, but I talked myself out of that wimpy topic and into one that would guarantee no hiring committee would ever even touch my application: the novels of the Marquis de Sade. Nobody else had really admitted reading them as porn, which I’d been doing since the lesbian couple who kept me as a platonic pet had given me Justine as a consolation prize, something to wank to while they shut the bedroom door and went about their strenuous business. By this time I’d taught myself to read, though not speak French and had worked my way through the seven different versions of Justine Sade wrote in prison. I read them one-handed, sometimes  because I was making notes in the margins, and sometimes  for the more usual reason. That was my career plan, prove what a bad person I was by doing a dissertation on Sade, and not a clean distant “theory” one but a very hand-on approach. It did not occur to me that this might not impress the hiring committees of Midwestern and southern universities when it came time for them to choose a new Rhetoric and Composition teacher. I thought they’d think the way I did: that it was brave and noble to have switched from the cheap easy topic of Stevens—a man who wrote in my native language, in my own century, for God’s sake! What wimpiness, level of difficulty zero!—to a mad pervert prison scrawler who specialized in torture murders done in eighteenth-century French. How could anyone fail to hire the man who’d chosen the path less traveled by? Well, less traveled by anyone who cared to admit it, though I’m sure Sade has been read by a thousand times more people than have read Stevens as avidly as I did.

So there I was, all set up in the house in Benicia. I drove myself back to our house in Pleasant Hill, grunted at my father to drive me to Benicia, and was dropped off by him on the cracked steps of our “investment property.” Even by the standards of that town, it was a sad house in the warm twilight. The cracked steps led up to a wooden porch that was dangerous, especially for someone like me. The old slats creaked in criticism of my eating habits. My mother had warned me tactfully to be careful. I was about 225 at that time, and to keep myself from breaking the 230 barrier I worked out on a rowing machine, which only seemed to make me more squat and apelike. My mother had tried to run this house as an antiques shop, with my insane fat Uncle Fred as her storekeeper, but that hadn’t worked out too well. Customers seemed reluctant to buy old junk from a drooling, bloated, over-medicated spaniel who responded only to my mother’s commands. They stayed away in mobs. The only people who did visit were thieves. The place had been gone over three times already by increasingly snooty robbers, who skimmed the cream of the antiques. What was left now was the stuff they hadn’t even considered worth stealing: sad things made of glass, incredibly sad old posters, sad old toys, sad furniture piled to the ceiling in some rooms. And the ceilings were falling down, spotted with mold and water damage.

I went in and cleared a little space for my sleeping bag in the middle room, moving things out of the way, trying not to look at them too much because they broke my heart. Every old, unsold and unwanted thing in the world. Every single defeat for whatever thousand years. Little spiders and not so little spiders crawled away from the mass of old whatever. What was that thing in the corner — some kind of Victorian baby carriage with a swollen-faced albino doll in it? Don’t look if you can help it, just shove some room for myself before the sun goes down (no electricity). There was a kind of writing desk from some dead people that would do for writing the Sade chapter I’d promised to finish this week. And there was a big bathroom at the back with a huge tub where I could cook the more flammable materials. Butler had warned me that “some are flammable and some are explosive, but flammable is actually worse.” I didn’t follow up on that information; I was planning mainly on hoping for the best.

I’d warned my parents to stay away for the week it would take to cook, but what if they decided I needed a break from all that study and dropped in to see me? If they found me among the bubbling retorts…I’d just kill myself. That even had a certain appeal.

Or if the cops…that was far, far worse. Even killing myself might not expiate that. It was so awful it crushed my head like a recycled can every time I thought of it. So I wouldn’t think about it. It didn’t seem to happen in the movies much. The cops hardly figured in either Scarface or Risky Business. Surely that was some consolation.

Step one was to tape paper over all the windows. Step two was to explain the suspicious taping of the windows with painting. I’d brought paint for the outside of the house – god knows it needed it. The house was nominally yellow, but a gray-white pallor of death and defeat was pushing back the yellow day by day.  The paint would also disguise the smell, I hoped, though I had no idea what cooking speed smelled like and Butler had been oddly reluctant to dwell on that particular issue. He had said enthusiastically in the beginning that there were some really excellent sophisticated ventilation systems you could buy that totally masked the smell, but when he heard how little money I had, he’d changed his tune and said we’d just tape up the windows and hope for the best. I had a private plan: I would personally try to inhale as deeply as I could for the week the stuff was cooking so that I could process as much as possible of the fumes through my own lungs so they wouldn’t get out and draw cops.

The big alchemy would start tomorrow morning. It was getting dark, another omen of defeat, the ten billionth in a long and endlessly redundant list. I pushed the Victorian baby carriage over by the broken stained-glass lamp, causing another housing crisis among the spiders, and unrolled the sleeping bag. Lying there waiting for the darkness or the cops or the spiders, I stared up at the antiques now looming huge like a cheesy dream sequence, and the ceiling we’d tried and failed to fix three times, old vellum maps of mold.


“Pleasant Hell”

By John Dolan

Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).

Read more: , , , , John Dolan, Featured

Got something to say to us? Then send us a letter.

Want us to stick around? Donate to The eXiled.

Twitter twerps can follow us at


Add your own

  • 1. Harry Ballsach  |  March 25th, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    That book on Sade may be a great work if it’s ever finished and published.

  • 2. A-Lex  |  March 26th, 2010 at 3:46 am

    Speaking of drugs, have you guys read the news of NATO turning down Russia’s plan on fighting opium production in Afghanistan?

    “NATO spokesman James Appathurai said, “We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income of people who live in the second-poorest country in the world without being able to provide them with an alternative.”

    So freaking nice of NATO to worry about how those towlheads make a living! Especially after you’ve invaded their country on an alleged quest after Bin Laden (he was supposed to be hiding there, remember?), and now occasionally bomb their village weddings now and then.

    Opium production in this country has increased 44 times in the 8 years that Karzai has been in power, reaching 8,000 tonn per annum now, and making up 98 per cent of global heroin suply.

    NATO doesn’t want to upset locals by not letting them produce the world’s most harmful drug. So now families across Russia and Europe will be losing ever more teenages to Mr.H, just so that you yanks would preserve your illusion of popularity with those savages?

  • 3. Nich  |  March 26th, 2010 at 9:09 am

    A-Lex youse a pussy

  • 4. Joe  |  March 26th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    sounds like the house will be gone soon; though it doesn’t seem like it will hurt the property value

  • 5. homer  |  March 26th, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    A-Lex, why don’t you cut all that whining crap already?

  • 6. A-Lex  |  March 27th, 2010 at 2:39 am

    Nich, Homer —

    Just imagine the outcry that would erupt in the US if it turned out that Russia’s operation in Latin America resulted in a 2/3 increase of drug inflow into your country. Ya’ll would go apeship at the thought of the sinister Russkies turning your kids into junkies. But when it’s taking place down in that big stupid country half the globe away from ‘the world’, you surely can afford to be nonchalant.
    Waytago, Jedi.

  • 7. Harry Ballsach  |  March 27th, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    What I don’t understand is, we’ve got tons of high-altitude poor-soil wasteland we can grow great opium on ourselves in the US, why don’t we just do that?

    Anyway this article is about speed.

  • 8. No comprende  |  March 27th, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Why do you keep mentioning this Nigerian singer “Sade”?

    Yours confusedly,
    No Comprende

  • 9. internal exile  |  March 27th, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    What a crybaby you are A-lex. Wouldn’t your movie heroes just go over to A-ghan and solve the problem themselves? So what are you waiting for?

  • 10. vortexgods  |  March 27th, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    A-Lex, this is the Exile, we are in favor of the opium poppy here, and wish death on those who call for its eradication.

  • 11. A-Lex  |  March 28th, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Internal exhole —

    Oh fucking thanks a lot, but we’ve had our go at Afghanistan back in the 1980s (and by the way, as long as it was us, drug production in that country did not soar). Now it’s your area of responsibility — and you took it up at your own initiative in 2001, remember? Or did you deploy 85,000 GIs to Af-n so that Russians would be doing your job for you?

    Just explain the logic of this to me: the self-righteous Americans, who are permanently on a crusade all over the world, who rush in to establish democracy in countries that don’t want it (Iraq), or to let women wear pants and use Twitter (Af-n), or to protect ethnic minorities that you couldn’t care less about in a country that you couldn’t know less about (Yugoslavia); who lose sleep over how people vote, pray of take a dump from Kosovo to Yemen — how come your crusader zeal fails you when it’s about fighting drug production at the cost of losing your soft spot with the local chieftains?

    Vortexgods —

    You might think your outspoken benevolence for opium makes you look edgy, but I take it as mere posturing obviously coming from someone who’s never lost a friend to heroin.

  • 12. RecoverylessRecovery  |  March 28th, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Ah, it warms my old capitalist heart to read about the adventures of a fellow business entrepreneur who has decided to improve the world’s quality of life thru the able placement of his/her products & services.

    And still the naysayers dare claim that we no longer manufacture anything here in the U.S.!

  • 13. Kat  |  March 29th, 2010 at 8:27 am

    You memorized Wallace Stevens’ poems “long before anyone else thought they were any good.”?

    Interesting. How old are you exactly? 98?

  • 14. RecoverylessRecovery  |  March 29th, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Stevens was no poet
    (just to set things straight)
    and what the fuck’s the problem
    with being nintey-eight?

  • 15. Jim Buck  |  March 29th, 2010 at 11:17 am

    All we are saying is: Give booze a chance! Breaking Bad! Breaking Bad! Breaking Bad!

  • 16. j  |  March 30th, 2010 at 1:01 am

    I’ve scrolled through this series and found nothing of value in regards to meth production. At least bring in some chemistry and some suggested alternate chemical pathways to synthesize it. [My drug is alcohol and nicotine, but the above observation stands.]

  • 17. adolphhitler  |  March 30th, 2010 at 6:48 am

    @ 11 oh boo hoo, you lost a friend to heroin, so i guess now the rest of us dont get to partake because you are on a mission to stamp out drugs. why dont you just take care of your self and let the rest of us do what we want…you are a health nazi…i bet you are in favor of helmet and seatbelt laws

  • 18. RecoverylessRecovery  |  March 30th, 2010 at 11:44 am

    PS: Don’t forget to ask the author to include viable ways of laundering the profits along with a detailed list of off-shore banks and wiring instructions.


Leave a Comment

(Open to all. Comments can and will be censored at whim and without warning.)


Required, hidden

Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed