1. Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood by A.J. Albany
If anyone has the perfect pedigree for a killer dope memoir, it’s Amy Jo Albany. Her mother Sheila was Allen Ginsberg’s last hetero affair, and her dope-fiend father, Joe, played piano behind Charlie Parker. As a little girl, Amy Jo was a regular at dives and clubs many adults might have thought twice about stepping into. She and her dad lived at St. Francis Hotel, a Hollywood flophouse frequented by junkies, prostitutes, porn dogs, washed-up show-biz losers and the odd one-eyed dwarf. Much has been written about the Hollywood that made movies in the ’60s and ’70s. What Low Down lays bare is anti-glamorous Hollywood, the infernal wasteland none but the doomed have to negotiate. Joe Albany might have been a jazz giant, but he mainlined his way to the status of brilliant footnote. Still, he raised young AJ as a single father, and it’s the compelling portrait Daddy the Dope Fiend and the little girl he called his “ace-one-boon-white-coon” that makes this book the little masterpiece it is.
2. Inifinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest is such a monster of a book, the pages devoted to inebriants of every flavor — and the people who love them — constitute a spectacularly weird and deep drug book of their own. In his loving depiction of Don Gately and the denizens of Ennet House, the rehab where much of Jest’s action plays out, Wallace gives us some of the most scarily accurate, screamingly funny, and deeply felt portrayals of users and their innermost beings ever written. Here it is: the greatest American writer on the great American subject — addiction.
3. Another Day in Paradise by Eddie Little
Eddie Little was a real-life ex-dope fiend, ex-con, and bullet-scarred badass who turned the stories of his hard-fought life into a coming-of-age-on-smack crime classic. The young hero and his girlfriend attach themselves to an older thief and his wife, and the foursome careen on a dope-soaked cross-country spree of thieving, violence, and living the old-school gangster high life. Along the way, the kid learns the ropes: how to crack a safe, set up phony checking accounts, and keep himself on heroin. Another Day enjoyed a spectacular first-book success that culminated with Larry Clark directing James Woods and Melanie Griffith in the movie version. Five years after the book came out, the author died in a motel room, at 48.
4. Speed by William Burroughs Jr.
His dad was a tough act to follow — but happily, Bill Jr. managed to find a drug he could call his own. He turned his experience mainlining meth into a novel that manages to be loopy, hellish, hysterical, and almost preternaturally evocative of a meth-heads state of mind — sometimes all at the same time. Either eschewing commas for free-flowing speed riff or downshifting into a kind of pulp staccato, young Burroughs mines his overstimulated brain for one remarkably twisted sentence and situation after another. Including this gem, when he and his road dog are staying in the house of some straights, whom Bill Jr. notices are looking at him funny: “They wondered in stage whispers what was on my mind. I said, ‘Carnivorous albino badgers, the size of a boxcar.’”
5. Lit by Mary Karr
Alcohol is a drug — and rarely has it been more brutally abused, in more painful, glued-to-the-page detail than in Mary Karr’s Lit. Whether she’s tearing down the highway drunk, discovering her toddler has taken a swig from the fifth of Jack stashed in the oven, or telling her husband lies, Karr manages to bring a poet’s eye and an addict’s desperate heart to the proceedings. That her alcoholic mania parallels her mother’s is only one of the unvarnished truths infusing every sentence of this classic. We become what we flee — until, of course, we have to flee what we’ve become. Garnishing each chapter is a selection from Karr’s favorite poets, reminding us that, in the right literary hands, even the deepest shame yields its own dark poetry.
6. Tai Pei by Tao Lin
In one of the most intense and chemically demented scenes cooked up this century, Tai Pei’s millennial protagonist gets so fucked up on psilocybin he hallucinates that he has a heroin habit — and is actually OD’ing. To the extent drugs define an era, Tao Lin’s newest defines our times the way, say, Less Than Zero did the ’80s. Different times, however, require different medication. Today’s tech-drenched consumers are after insulation as much as stimulation. The main character fantasizes about “traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life.” Just reading the pharmacopeia the cool couple at the heart of the novel imbibe may induce rehab — or at least a crash — afterward. Along with those magic mushrooms, throw in some Adderall, LSD, Oxycodone, Percocet, Ambien, coke, and Ecstasy, and you’ve got yourself a great night in Vegas. (Side note: In real life the author and his wife, poet Megan Boyle, started a film company called MDMA.)
7. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue by Eugene Richardson
There are photographs in this collection so stark they make The Wire look like Green Acres. Immersing himself in North Philly, East New York, and a Red Hook housing project, three of the most drug-ravaged patches of humanity on the planet, photographer Eugene Richardson got so inside the lives of his subjects, there seems no other explanation than the madness of their own addiction to explain why they would even let him in the room, let alone take pictures… One black-and-white, of a woman clenching a loaded rig between her teeth, stares up off the page with such bug-eyed, deranged happiness, you almost need to bleach your brain to get the image out. This is the America you see when you turn over the rock.
8. Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion by Gary Webb
Iran-Contra may now seem like some musty, Ronald Reagan brain fart. But in ‘96, when San Jose Mercury reporter Gary Webb ripped the lid off the CIA’s coke-dealing lovefest with Nicaraguan Contras — famed for being Reagan’s fave fascists, and for their brutal death squads — his accusations were so appalling that the government, with the help of mainstream media, drove the Pulitzer Prize winner out of his job, shattered his career and personal life, and drove him to suicide. Beyond the macro-story of the utter amorality of Team Reagan, the micro-stories of bent Company men, Nicaraguan MBAs, and the original Freeway Ricky Ross are wildly fascinating. But looming over Webb’s fantastic reporting is the fate of the author himself — betrayed by his own paper, hounded by fellow journalists, and, in the end, completely fucking vindicated. He knew the truth about crack, and the powers-that-be made sure he paid for it.
9. Straight Life by Art Pepper and Laurie Pepper
Like most junkies, Art Pepper was a multitasker. While keeping his veins filled, he was also a Peeping Tom, a thief, and generally regarded as one of the greatest alto sax players since Charlie Parker — even when he was playing in the San Quentin prison band. Pepper inhabited the gone world on which all the clichés of jazz and junk were built. (Rumor has it he never committed armed robbery because none of his criminal pals thought he was sane enough to have a gun.) Maybe it’s Pepper’s own acknowledged sexual voyeurism that drives him to peel back and bare so many layers of his own soul. Never has a man spent so much energy trying to kill his demons with one hand while feeding them with the other. Like his best music, the musician’s prose is beautiful in a dissonant, wild, heartbreaking, and just this side of out-of-control way. A classic.
10. Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience Edited by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz
This book is so epic in scope, and so varied in voice and attitude, it can best be described a kind of narco-smorgasbord, within which the reader can find enough tales of sordid, salacious, and spiritual drug quests to satisfy a lifetime’s worth of vicarious debauchery. Just the fact that Cleopatra, Susan Sontag, Sarah Bernhardt, and Billie Holiday are between the same two covers tells you all you need to know. For my money, the great Mary Woronov’s story “The Mole People” is worth the price of admission. Of all the characters to graduate from the Warhol Factory, she may be the one who dates the least.
11. The Last Opium Den by Nick Tosches
Submerging himself in the underworld of Hong Kong, Europe, Cambodia, and Thailand, Nick Tosches searches out the Yeti, Holy Grail, and unicorn of narco-ecstatics: a genuine opium den. Woven into the quest is a meditation of the paltry, risk-free pleasures of the modern world, an elegy for a time when exotica wasn’t virtual and acquiring the right drugs could be more dangerous than consuming them. Tosches writes like a hipster Dante, taking us down alleys where you can buy a human soul if you know the right doorway. Why some network hasn’t called Tosches and offered him a narco-travel show is beyond me. What Bourdain did for regional eating Nick could do for native highs — especially those whose existence is no more than a dead man’s whisper. No writer alive is more fearless in plumbing the wildest corners of his own psyche. Tosches knows all the secret handshakes you need to get into Perfect Hell — which makes him, dead-straight or opiated, the real most interesting man alive.
12. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
Hippies, Drugs, Dealers, Narcs, Viet Nam — The Counterculture. The incendiary worlds Stone captures in Dog Soldiers are rendered with the kind of hallucinogenic intensity that dissipated when the period itself careened to its inevitable crash. There was that moment in Apocalypse Now when Bill Graham tries to keep his Vietnam road show from erupting into chaos. This kind of brink-of-madness energy infuses every moment of Stone’s novel. Every character exists as kind of archetype of the time, infused with the author’s uncanny ability to chronicle the souls of his subjects right down to the soles of their boots.
13. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
Fun factoid: Novelist Robert Stone was one of the Merry Pranksters on Ken Kesey’s legendary magic bus — Further — driven by the era-straddling Beat & Hippie icon Neal Cassady. Kesey’s mobile universe, fueled by pitchers of LSD and peppered by Flower Power walk-ons from Owsley to Jerry Garcia, is described with day-glo delectation by the American institution known as Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe didn’t inhale. But his natty detachment from the Merry Pranksters only intensifies his vivid voyeur’s delight. Being as out-of-his-head as they were would have made things redundant. On the natch, Wolfe’s prose pops with a brain-melting swirl of detail and spot-on dialogue that perfectly complements the ride — and defines New Journalism. Back then, you were either on the bus or off. Wolfe writes like he installed the seats.
14. Dope by Sara Gran
Sara Gran’s Josephine “Joey” Flannigan is the classic noir heroine: a woman with a past, in this case as a hooker and junkie, now almost living the square life — give or take some department store shoplifting — until she’s hired to find the missing daughter of a wealthy couple who seeks her out for the job. Along the way, Gran gives us a tour of underbelly New York City, circa the 1950s, when drug addicts were still outsiders, living in that twilight world of hepcats, lowlifes, and criminals. Crime may not pay, but, as Gran’s game and strung-out heroine discovers before it’s all over, it can keep you high, until it drops you lower than you ever thought it possible to go. If Herbert Huncke had a sister, this is the book she would have written.
15. Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Scheff
Perhaps no voice in drug literature has ever been as suited to its story as Nic Scheff’s. The episodic relapse saga Tweak is more than graphic, manic, and raw, it’s so relentless it’s almost as if — in the manner of every genuine, hope-to-die drunk, tweaker, or junkie you’re likely to meet — the author is unimpressed by the level of brutality he himself has endured. (If that’s the life you happen to live, then living it is absolutely normal.) Scheff was 21 when he banged out Tweak. The narrative’s got an unsettling, choppy rhythm, as if the words are as uncomfortable on the page as the adolescent protagonist was in his own skin. But as harrowing as the book’s more grisly moments — at one point our boy, in full junkie mode, nearly loses an arm to a blood infection — it’s the loneliness beneath them that rips your heart out. Think Catcher in the Rye — if Holden Caulfield had a thing for rigs. Tweak is the kind of book every generation of outsider kids will discover and make their own. Sometimes a reader needs that savage affirmation: the knowledge that somebody else has been where they are, and made it back to tell the tale.
16. Artificial Paradises edited by Mike Jay
Freud on Cocaine! Artaud on Peyote! Homer on Lotus Eaters! Dolphin Man John Lilly on Ketamine! On and on… As entertaining as the various flavors of mind-benders on parade here is the weird reassurance to be had by knowing that people have been getting fucked up since the first caveman got sideways and started finger-painting the walls. Here is a book that goes from The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde — possibly the best drug metaphor ever conceived — to the truth about sacred mushrooms and Jesus. (Could Christianity have started out as a hallucinogenic, Near East fertility cult? What would Pat Robertson say?) Paradise provides an indispensable Highlight Reel of Narco-Legends down through the ages. Leave it to the Dark Prince of Perv, Aleister Crowley, to break things down best in this snippet from Diary of a Drug Fiend. “I can’t sleep without it. I can’t keep awake without it.” What else do you need to know?
17. Spent by Antonia Crane
Along with stripping, doing enema shows, and finding her hidden talents as a masterful dom in the sex industry, memoirist Antonia Crane found time to imbibe a small pharmacy of pills, meth, and Dr. Hoffman’s pride and joy, LSD. It’s not easy out there — and the right drugs take the edge off, or keep it on, depending on what you need to get through the day. At root — as tends to be the case in the most honest of drug-related chronicles — there’s a crushing loneliness at the heart of the story. Paralleling her journey through infernal sex world are Ms. Crane’s struggles with her mother’s cancer, her own disease of addiction, and that strange, inescapable institution called “family.” One of the more vivid, heartfelt, and absolutely unflinching chronicles of The Life to emerge this year.
18. Trainspotting by Irvine Welch
Nobody can bring nihilistic Edinburgh junkies to a festive linguistic boil like the great Irvine Welsh. Even if the Scottish dialect makes getting to the genius like hacking through vines, it’s worth the effort. Repeated readings of these linked stories make it no easier to pin down the magic combo platter of bleak exhilaration and dead-end glee Welch’s characters manage to spout. Welch is a functioning master of opiated highs and lows. Never has drug-addled desperation been rendered with such Damon Runyon-esque delight. Clearly Scotland produces a more colorfully tongued breed of junkies than their shit-talking American counterparts. Maybe there’s something in the water — that they put in their spoons.
19. A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown
Imagine every worst-case scenario a savage childhood and adolescence have to offer: sexual abuse, gangbanging, homelessness, prostitution, thievery, alcoholism, crack addiction — then turn it on its head and you have Cupcake Brown’s spectacularly crushing and wildly, unexpectedly funny memoir, A Piece of Cake. In not just chronicling her path through hell, but surviving it, the author possesses the rarest gift of all: an absolutely unique and astonishing voice. And it’s this voice — self-taught and unflinching, never far from a laugh in the absolute worst moments — which turns what could have been another tale of life at the ragged bottom of urban torment into a riveting, life-affirming, consistently laugh-out-loud little masterpiece.
20. Johnny Future by Steve Abee
When a novel kicks off with Nyquil guzzling, the narrator is pals with a transvestite paraplegic named Baby Juice, and street signs all scream “Loser!” in his face, you know you’ve entered Steve Abee territory. L.A.’s slimy underbelly has always attracted the dream-scuzz of the earth, but in Abee’s version it’s crawling with as many don’t-wannabes as wannabes. What elevates Future’s tribe from the usual nest of freaks a tourist can make a wrong turn and see any day of the week is the incredible soulfulness of Future’s derangement. Abee has heart, a virtue he shares with Denis Johnson, Rick Moody, Michelle Tea, and other virtuoso portrayers of the chemically dispossessed. The real subject here is not the world inside the characters’ heads so much as the world that made them that way. Johnny even has a girlfriend named “America.”
Jerry Stahl is the author of 8 books, including the narcotic memoir Permanent Midnight, made into a movie with Ben Stiller, and, more recently, the heroin-and-GMO epic, Happy Mutant Baby Pills.