BY RO CUZON
In a spoon, mix some On the Road with a drop of vinegar and a squirt of water. Bring to a boil and let it cool, then add just the right amount of Catcher in the Rye. Suction through the balled up cotton of a cigarette Pulp/Noir filter. Find a vein. Inject and wait for the rush.
Junkie Love, Joe Clifford’s second novel (his third book if you include his great short-story collection Choice Cuts) is as raw and candid a story as you’ll ever experience. It’s a gritty literary memoir that reads like the fiction of a James M. Cain or Jim Thompson and will take you on a visceral trip down the darkest alleys of drug addiction.
Early in the novel, Joe wonders “how a good-looking, lapsed Catholic from Connecticut turned into a no-good, thieving junkie, homeless on the streets of San Francisco.” Junkie Love is, at least in part, the author’s attempt to answer that question. At this stage in the story, however, one of the explanations Joe offers us is that he may have read too many books.
There aren’t many possibilities left for true adventure in our world today for a rebellious young man stuck in a small town, his mind ablaze with the stories of Conrad, Melville, and the spirit of the Beats, his dreams pulsing to a rock & roll soundtrack. There are no more riverboats languidly wheel-paddling up and down the Mississippi River, and hopping freight trains across America just doesn’t have the same romantic appeal it once had before the Interstate Highway System. In theory, one can still embark on a ship across the oceans, though it is hard to imagine anything more boring that being stuck on one of these storm-proof, container-laden supertankers for weeks on end with a foreign crew.
This, I believe, is one of the numerous reasons why the world of drugs can appear so seductive to many young people. Dark and dangerous, but still romantic—at least in an 18th Century Romanticism sense—drugs represent one of the last, readily accessible roads away from conformity and a square, boring life. For kids who may not fit in with the mainstream and polite society, kids who feel they are different, special even, drugs are the ultimate fuck you.
And they make you high.
They are of course also a trap.
Some, the lucky ones, will realize this and pull back in time. For others, it will be too late.
Joe Clifford belongs to the latter group, a young man who went to San Francisco with rock & roll dreams of making it as a musician, only to end up living on the streets, swallowed whole by a spiraling addiction to methamphetamines then heroin. Committing crimes to feed his habit, he ends up betraying and breaking the heart of everyone who ever loved him, as junkies are wont to do.
Very few people make it out of that world; fewer still end up creating art out of their experiences. Poignant, horrific, and at times uproariously funny, Junkie Love is not only a journey through hell and back but also a story of redemption and hope.
One must be careful not to glorify an addict’s ‘war stories’, Joe points out somewhere in the book. This is very true, for any junkie’s suffering is, at least originally, self-inflicted.
The fact remains that, in a roundabout, twisted, painful way ten years in the making, Joe Clifford may have achieved what he set out to do when he first hit the highway in search of adventure. “The best teacher is experience,” writes Jack Kerouac in On the Road. Joe Clifford embarked on a wild perilous trip, pushed his luck as far as it would go and almost didn’t make it back. But he did, and in the process found his identity and his own unique voice, creating music not out of notes but out of words.
Go west, young man, go west. It amazes me that Joe and I both headed that call the same year, in 1991. He was twenty-one at the time, I was twenty-two. He came from Connecticut and I from France, but we both ended up in the same place, physically and metaphorically. Although we never met back then, we lived in the same San Francisco neighborhood, and, to be sure, frequented some of the same places and characters.
Two decades later, we are both published writers. We both have families of our own.
Sometimes, real-life Noir stories have happy endings.
Ro Cuzon is the author of the Adel Destin crime series, including the critically acclaimed Under the Dixie Moon and Under the Carib Sun. Hailed by George Pelecanos, Sean Chercover, Laura Lippman, and James Sallis as a writer to watch, Ro’s novels are all available here at the Rogue Reader and at ebook retailers everywhere.