Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.
The Nicotine Chronicles, edited by Lee Child, is another installment of the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series. Previous books have focused on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and speed. The present volume, however, chronicles a legal drug. It should be noted that this anthology is about nicotine, not tobacco. As Lee Child, bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series, states:
“Food scientists have discovered a complex compound naturally present in, among other things, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The compound offers us a number of benefits: it improves our fine motor skills; it improves our cognitive abilities; it increases our attention spans; it improves our long- and short-term memories; it lessens depression; it delays and possibly even prevents Alzheimer’s; and it decreases the risk of Parkinson’s. In and of itself, it has no real downside. It’s called nicotine. We should all get some.”
But there’s a catch: “The problem is the delivery system. […] The most efficient way [to get a beneficial amount of nicotine] is to burn dried tobacco leaves and inhale the smoke.”
The result to continued inhalation and consumption of tobacco products is pretty obvious to anyone. Lee Child takes us to Flavor Country with a varied array of contributors, including Eric Bogosian, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Imperioli.
The stories themselves also range widely and wildly. From the weirdly surreal “The Renovation of the Just” by Christopher Sorrentino to the Caribbean mysticism of “Yasiri” by Michael Imperioli. “Smoking Jesus,” by Eric Bogosian is a short internal monologue: a rant, a projection of the narrator’s conflicted psyche, and a snarling attack on the reader’s moral certitudes. He ends by saying about people with no money – in contrast to we, the reader’s, First World Problems – how they “Spend all their livelong day searching for clean water and firewood and hope they don’t trip over a land mine while doing it. These people don’t worry about sunblock. Or flossing after meals. Or whether there’s bacteria on the sponge. They don’t. They don’t worry about any of it. And if they get a chance to smoke a cigarette, they smoke it. Whenever they can.”
Lee Child’s “Dying for a Cigarette” is a small fable about a screenwriter’s love for cigarettes and artistic integrity. It chronicles his life of aesthetic compromises and the success it brings him. An attack on the Hollywood studio system, but also an unflinching look at human frailty.
“Deathbed Vigil,” by Jonathan Ames is a dark and heartbreaking story about a former cop and his dying aunt. Ames, an author and TV show creator, brings us into the head of someone not right in the head. Damaged, angry, memory-impaired, Sol takes an flight back to be at the bedside of his Aunt Lina. His extreme hatred for cigarette smoke leads him to a dangerous confrontation.
“God’s Work” by Bernice L. McFadden, focuses on a cop looking for missing children in rural Georgia. We enter the mind of a simple man with simple tastes, having no truck with big city types or interfering FBI agents. But McFadden, a storytelling master, turns the story from the relatively world of a Hercule Poirot “cozy mystery” into Jim Thompson territory. After a tame beginning, she paints a picture as disturbing as anything by Andrew Vachss.
What many of the authors do within this collection is create fiction where the hit of nicotine is a visceral and sensual thing. “Vaping: A User’s Manual,” by Joyce Carol Oates follows a teen’s dark descent into addiction. Vaping gets the teen high, one hit at a time, even as the teen voices his disgust at the smell of cigarettes. Hypocrisy, naivete, and hedonistic joy propel this dark tale forward until the inevitable aftermath.
Despite the bleak subject matter, these stories aren’t the simplistic and preachy variety. There’s no “moral decline” or “moral panic” narratives contaminating the stories with pearl-clutching or finger-wagging. These stories are what they are. Make up your own mind on the matter.
Full disclosure: I smoke cigars when I was younger, although I haven’t had any in many years. In terms of bias, I am the polar opposite of advocating any sort of “straight-edge” ideology.