peteg's blog - noise - books - 2013 08 16 Clune WhiteOut

Michael W. Clune: White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin

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A review in the New Yorker blog gave me a Trainspotting flashback; has it really been half a lifetime since I read that book instead of preparing for my first-year exams? Perplexingly the masterwork on junk was acknowledged by neither the review nor the book itself, so I imagine Irvine Welsh has the cold-turkey chills. In any case Clune's ambit is a broader rumination than Welsh ever aspired to; while both expend some effort explaining the social implications of being on dope/skag, Clune is far more interested in the effect on his inner self. In some sense it is an expansion of what Trainspotting (the movie) reduced to a Renton voiceover:

People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. After all, we're not fucking stupid. At least, we're not that fucking stupid.

Where Danny Boyle carefully suffocated heroin glamour with Edinburgh squalor, Clune is far more nuanced about his white outs in Baltimore, Chicago and New York. Being American we get nothing like Renton's colonized-by-wankers speech, and there is no Mother Superior or NHS.

Clune's prose is repetitious, hypnotically repetitious in the small, fast-moving in the large, which like his "memory disease" makes every whiteout and the search for one a repetition of the first time, and indeed his account of that one is scary-good. Being a youthful junkie "the future is forever", though he closes with a wife and dogs; "I don't think about the future." (David Bowie in 1984, presumably another voice of experience: "You'll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow's never there.") The cycle of addiction and recovery is tawdry at times, and many relationships are presented in fragmentary form, some with entries and exits, dismal and sublimely visual, visceral. The mandatory sex scene somewhere in the middle is hilarious. A veil is drawn over the passing of his druggy buddies, and his intellectual life is almost entirely elided. Narcotics Anonymous is a life-saving machine, if you can strap your life to it; not everyone can.

I knew it was the book for me from the razor blade embossed on the cover. I wonder if he found it difficult to find a publisher, given that it was released by Hazelden, an anti-addiction press. Unfortunately Clune's professional lit-crit is hard work to get into, though I have hopes that Gamelife, "on computer games as spiritual education", will be more like this.