William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Lou Reed, and Lenny Bruce. These names underscore the appeal and ominous glamor of heroin. In his hilarious introduction, novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl writes that “All my heroes are junkies.” It’s hard to argue that fact. The famous Bill Hicks comedy bit about talented musicians doing drugs and musicians against drugs sucking also comes to mind. Heroin is a highly addictive opium derivative and the subject The Heroin Chronicles. The third volume in Akashic Books’s Drug Chronicles series following The Speed Chronicles and The Cocaine Chronicles. (Akashic Books is famous for their City Noir series, having reviewed Venice Noir last year.)
Stahl pulls off a masterful job, corralling different voices, tones, and styles in this concise anthology. While most of the short stories are predictably dark, the anthology has slices of humor. One of the funnier stories is Michael Albo’s “Baby, I Need to See a Man about a Duck,” about a journalist working the porn beat with a mean black tar habit. The story, set in Greater Los Angeles, has the narrator scoring some heroin from his dealer, Johnny Gato. The narrator eventually leaves Casa Johnny Gato, resupplied with heroin and purchasing a duck from Johnny’s youngest kid, Jorge. All is well with the world until the duck tries to escape the confines of the cardboard box in the front seat of the narrator’s Ford Ranger pickup. Jerry Stahl’s “Possible Side Effects” is the story of a advertising copywriter who specializes in writing ad copy for pharmaceuticals. In a harrowing flashback, he remembers shooting up in his kid’s elementary school bathroom … and then getting caught by his kid and teacher. “Dos Mac + The Jones” by Nathan Larson is the story of a junkie named Dos Mac searching for a fix in a post-apocalyptic New York City. A decimated Big Apple has rival contractor gangs (Chinese, Saudi, Russian) killing and gassing each other with impunity. “After his creation of the missile guidance system (originally conceived as an attempt to increase efficiency in the NYC subway), and Mac’s subsequent courtship by the government, his stint in naval intelligence made maintaining his smack hobby a touch trickier.”
There is a dramaticule by Eric Bogosian and a wonderfully scabrous tale by Lydia Lunch. Lunch’s story, “Ghost Town,” shreds the Hollywood mystique and the middlebrow American Dream like a lawn mower.
“New York City may have been bankrupt, decrepit, and suffering from the final stages of rigor mortis, but the California Dream was a waking nightmare of dead-end streets ripe with bloated corpses where bad beat poets, dope-sick singers, cracked actors, and petty criminals were all praying to a burned-out star on the sidewalk.”
Lunch’s cynicism and despair slice like a hammer, creating poetry with sharp fangs and vicious punch-lines. “The Monster” by John Albert and “Black Caesar’s Gold” by Gary Phillips are two more outstanding stories. Both tweak the conventions of the crime genre with spectacular results.
For all the bleakness, suffering, and crime seeping from the pores of this anthology, Stahl welds together a creative whole from disparate voices. Because illegal drugs, especially heroin, are so damaging, it is refreshing to read an anthology focusing on drugs that neither moralizes or condescends to the reader. These stories reflect upon the human damage, one individual at a time.
Out of 10/9.3