the contextual life

thoughts without borders

The Speed Chronicles, a Drug-Themed Collection

leave a comment »

“You are normal. It’s the speed that made you a freak.” – Jerry Stahl, ‘Bad’

The popularity of “Breaking Bad,” the television show about a chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth, makes Akashic Books’ latest drug-themed collection, The Speed Chronicles, particularly timely. This anthology of fourteen multiple-authored short stories, with points of view spanning the range of possibilities, tackles the different ways in which meth permeates peoples’ lives. From addicts to loved ones to neighbors, The Speed Chronicles is a multifarious reading experience neatly packed into a mere 226 pages.

Series Editor Joseph Mattson felt there was a problem with drug literature, one that he hoped to avoid. In most books, the drugs and drug user are either celebrated or condemned — romanticized and glorified or demonized. Instead, Mattson chose stories that “reflect not only both ends of the dichotomy [speed’s ability to spark ebullience as well as wretchedness] . . ., but, more crucially, the abstractions within and between.”

Jess Walter’s “Wheelbarrow Kings” is a great example of the complexity Mattson was hoping to illustrate. The intensity of the story doesn’t hit you until the end; in the midst of it, you’re sucked into the single-minded focus of two meth addicts with dreams of pawning a television for drug money. We witness this life through the thoughts of one of the men. “I’m hungry as fuck.” the story starts out. The meth addict’s mind we inhabit is on the slow side. Its owner naive, thoughtful of others, and likable. His only goal is to find a way to eat and pay for his drugs.

As he and his friend struggle with moving a giant TV through the streets without a vehicle, they’re harassed by kids on bicycles and accused of theft by an old man standing in his front door. You start to feel sorry for them — and therein lies the surprise. “Wheelbarrow Kings” humanizes the men you see on the streets stripping electronics of their copper, the ones you sneer at, step away from, or ignore. By the time you finish this story it’s too late; you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Tao Lin’s ‘51 Hours” was the first story I read, which set the bar high; his name on the cover was reason alone for buying the book.

Aptly named, the story follows a group of friends — hipsters, for lack of a much better term — around Brooklyn and Manhattan as they take drugs, look for drugs, and talk about drugs. They keep themselves going with Adderall and meth and by grabbing minimal sleep at odd hours. No one gets busted, no one dies of an overdose, no meets a tragic end; instead, it’s a sketch of amateur meth heads teetering on the edge of decline.

Told in an exaggerated style, mimicking the speed of the drugs, what’s most impressive about “51 Hours” is how Lin kept the technique from feeling contrived. There’s the staccato dialogue:

“I used Adderall for the first time the other day,” said Andrew.
“Oh, sweet,” said Jack. “Did you like it?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think it would work.”
“How many milligrams did you use?”
“Forty,” said Andrew.
“Jesus,” said Jack.
“I used twenty and it wasn’t working so I used another twenty.”
“Nice,” said Jack.

And the simple, often grammatically poor, active sentences, mimicking restless ambivalence:

“Jack asked if Daniel wanted to go to the bookstore. Daniel said, ‘Not really,’ but that he would go if Jack wanted. They decided to sit in a cafe called Verb to decide what to do next. They walked there and sat and each ingested ten milligrams of Adderall.”

Tao Lin’s story, in its lack of sensationalism, is utterly convincing.

Jerry Stahl’s, ‘Bad,’ in which an addict unleashes a stream of conscious, is another strong piece. Not the most reliable of narrators, he goes back through his life, recalling nightmarish moments and equally nightmarish people that inevitably come along with a seedy lifestyle: a speedfreak prostitute whose mother gave her Dexedrine as a child, a stint at rehab where the ability to bear restraints is a sign of improvement, and a the dealer’s setup in a motel room where a five-year-old boy cringes at the touch of a grown man wearing a cowboy hat. The clever one-liners and dark, accurate insights give the story poignancy:

“What people who were never addicted don’t understand. You did not do this shit for pleasure. You did it for relief”
“What a good drug does. Is make you believe perfection is what you are going to feel forever”
“Speed never made you smarter. It just let you be what you already were longer.”
“One day you wake up and you’re letting your appetite sign your checks.”
“The first time you go to a laundromat , without speed, you hate that the spinning laundry is boring. . . . It used to explain the universe.”
“Except for everything you knew about her, Penny seemed almost normal.”

Two other stories in the collection worth noting are Sherman Alexie’s ‘War Cry,’ a story set on an Indian reservation and Rose Bunch’s ‘Pissing in Perpetuity’ about an average family living next to a meth addicted single mother.

From William S. Burroughs to Jim Carroll to Irvine Welsh, drug lit has always been a favorite of mine. The subject, whether the author focuses on the drug or the user, lends itself to experimental fiction. The Speed Chronicles, with it’s many voices and styles, is an engrossing read, even if you’ve never touched a drug in your life.

Buy The Speed Chronicles at IndieBound


Written by Gabrielle

February 14, 2012 at 7:04 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: