I’ve read my fair share of drug books over the years (“Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” “The Basketball Diaries,” “Dead Babies,” “Naked Lunch,” etc.). Most of these classics derive much of their uniqueness from the fact that they describe a sensation that most people haven’t or will never experience. Often these drug-oriented books breathe a strange stream-of-consciousness language that, for obvious reasons, just sounds differently than most other fiction. If anything is certain, it is that drugs, even when used recreationally, can and do generally change people. They provide a frame of reference, often impossible to achieve, without the drug-induced effect. In the end, it is either the long-term mental repercussions or the resulting addiction that really causes the transformation.
Addiction is usually conveyed, in books, movies and real life as this pathetic, debilitating evil that strips away humanity leaving only bones and disease in its wake. But in the “The Story of Junk,” the page turning, modern-epic about becoming a junkie in New York City 1982-6, Linda Yablonsky manages to tell about the experience of being and becoming a junkie by using a narrator who, through it all, still seems to understand the physical and emotional ramifications of her lifestyle.
The story of our nameless protagonist begins in the early 80s when she is a cook in a trendy Village restaurant that serves a hangout for all sorts of celebrities from the art/music community. Ostensibly she had, at one time, wanted to write novels but ended up procrastinating herself into a kind of permanent inertia. At this point she begins experimenting with heroin in addition to the regular drinking and drugging that comes with the time and place.
The story really begins when our protagonist, a sexually active bisexual woman, meets Kit, the lead guitar player in a punk band modeled after a fusion of Blondie, Patti Smith and others from CBGB’s punk scene. The two fall immediately in love, and begin sharing everything from an apartment in the East Village to healthy addictions to heroin. Slowly but surely, use becomes abuse and life a constant drug search, through the seediest parts of the Lower East Side, which ultimately leads to a full time job dealing heroin to artsy junkies.
Yablonsky does a wonderful job creating an opiate haze around the character’s thoughts and behavior, but more than that she manages to describe this world without really judging it. There is very little dime-store morality interspersed into the story, instead more a linear story telling of a voyage down a certain kind of very bumpy and dangerous road. The setting and time period for this story also coincides with the emergence of AIDS in America. AIDS provides much of the narrative melodrama and context for the rest of the book, and refreshes our memory about that period not so many years ago, when American life wasn’t so threatened by a fatal sexually transmitted disease.
At the end of the novel Yablonsky points out that for a drug addict the story is always the same. “The Story of Junk” is the story of becoming addicted to excess and then either letting it kill you or fighting back up from the abyss to halt the chemical’s control of your life. Although the premise and conclusions of this book may seem a bit cliche, this is a good fascinating tale with real characters who manage to keep you interested throughout the story. Written in clean and readable prose, this story talks to that sketchy world that we pass on the streets or see on the TV news.