At first glance, a memoir of dope-consuming and dope-dealing would appear as just another entry in that hackneyed genre known as Outlaw Lit. Or worse, a misbegotten heir of Jean-Jacques Rousseau'ês 'êConfessions'ê: Precisely the one book we don'êt need to add to our overloaded shelves is another narcissistic memoir of bad behavior.
But if approaching Tom Hansen'ês American Junkie with that armor of trepidation, the reader is quickly won over, and not only by candor — which is presented in a starkly compelling manner — but by the mere presence of the book itself: How the hell can a person who has willfully laid himself as low as Hansen not only survive, but flourish?
His book, then, viewed as a story of endurance, is as worthy as Defoe'ês 'êCrusoe,'ê Mawson'ês South Pole debacle, Krakauer at the top of Everest or any other tale of survival. Hansen'ês exit from his self-imposed hell attests to adversity overcome and to the resilience of the human body.
His descent into sunless depths begins with the death of his adoptive father, lost at sea in a commercial fishing accident. Hansen'ês response is boilerplate juvenile delinquency — vandalism, truancy, and dabbling with bands in Seattle'ês nascent punk scene. Before long he recognizes the palliative qualities of increasingly potent medicine, most of it illicit. The first time he shot heroin, he writes, the act felt as natural as any other step in his life.
As with any other addict, he finds that maintaining a habit takes a level of wealth or resourcefulness that he lacks, until he stumbles upon the unintended career choice of peddling dope. His vocation is good for years — withstanding occasional benders, police intervention, and overdoses — but his prodigious consumption of heroin eventually vies for total devotion, and wins out.
Eventually Hansen delegates his dealing business to his roommate. His life then becomes thoroughly dominated by heroin use. For months his horizontal life requires little bodily function — urinating in liter soda bottles, other evacuations handled even less politely — until a physiological conundrum presents itself: Where does one stick a needle when all possibilities have been exhausted? And what about those festering, open wounds, producing that sickly sweet odor?
Structurally, chapters in the book alternate between those that document his recovery and those illustrating his descent. That juxtaposition provides a gripping account of his increasing devotion to heroin and his harrowing climb back from the dead, involving a Herculean effort at relearning to walk. A six-month stint at Bailey-Boushay House brings him back to life. In one passage, he shares a cigarette with a fellow patient who mentions that she used needles only a couple times, and yet contracted AIDS. Hansen, a human pin cushion, strives to understand the odds that allowed him to sidestep that fate.
The literary worth of American Junkie derives most notably from the propulsive story line and the various flourishes it contains. His use of ambiguity as a structural device is masterful; we are not given a handy conclusion to Hansen'ês recovery, and there'ês no sense of tidy redemption that might otherwise land this title in a soccer-mom book club.
In lieu of that, he displays a commendable unwillingness to play the 'êrecovery'ê game as dictated by the thriving addiction-treatment industry, which he found waiting at his hospital room door. Indeed, he recoils at the question 'êHow are you?,'ê which is presented invariably at every caregiver interaction. Such obstinance aside, as we hold the book we realize Hansen was committed enough to recovery to commit his memoir to paper. For Hansen, redemption is literary.
We know Hansen didn'êt corrupt innocent youth into dope fiends, as seen in the 1950s delinquent archetype. On the contrary, users sought him out, and he declined to do business with some prospective customers — such was the demand in Seattle'ês late 80s/early 90s drug scene. Hansen'ês vigorous narrative — unpleasantly unabashed at times — is noticeably bereft of certain dark details; the reader is prompted to question what facts were expurgated. The death of one customer, also a roommate, is dispassionately detailed; one expects there were other deaths, too.
Overdoses, disappearances, incarcerations, and deaths are accepted scenarios in the lives of junkies, seemingly processed by them in a clinical manner. In the mid '90s, when a member of Courtney Love'ês band Hole died of an overdose, the deceased'ês father was quoted in the local press saying he was underwhelmed by the youthful congregation at the funeral — they all seemed so nonplussed. So is Hansen, at times when you would expect some emoting. But the fog of dope is the recourse of the opiate addict; is the dismissal of those emotions denial, or is it that those emotions never registered in the first place?
John Lyly, 16th Century British man of letters, wrote that 'êin art there'ês no perfection.'ê Hansen'ês book, no exception, is a philosophical tract that asks what it is to be alive and to be a member of our society. The invective he directs at consumer culture, riddled as it is with hypocrisy, is occasionally biting. Given that he willfully eschewed that society for 20-plus years, we understand that Hansen'ês disdain was sincere enough. Yet opiate dependency is quite a consumeristic culture itself, albeit one without the machinery of Madison Avenue. Couple the constant need for dope with the television that'ês always on — as has been said about Raymond Carver'ês stories — and the life of a kiosk clerk in a shopping mall starts to look desirable.
Hansen's mother is an endearing thread throughout the narrative, never wavering in her dedication to her wayward son. It'ês a touching relationship and, perhaps, the spark that led to Hansen'ês return to the living (he went on to earn a GED, a bachelor's degree, and Master of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia).
Abandoned through the death of her husband and the addiction of her son, Hansen's mother prevails through an indomitable fortitude, working as a house cleaner for little hourly pay while her son processed hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money. She'ês there when her son emerges from his mattress, providing spiritual nourishment for a body and mind diminished to that of a concentration-camp victim. Selfishness has its limits, Hansen seems to say, which he recognized while on the cusp of being a goner.
In the beginning of his book, Hansen states that he pursued his habit while knowing all along 'êthat it will end badly.'ê That said, he has emerged as a reasonably functioning citizen. One leg is two inches shorter than the other, and he has a dog'ês breakfast of other maladies, but, importantly, he possesses a vital writing ability with genuine merit. For his readers, it has ended quite well.
Hansen will read from American Junkie at 7 p.m. Tuesday (June 15) at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle, 206-525-2347.