1. Dopefiend by Donald Goines
Goines didn’t just write street life — he lived it. He wrote 16 novels in five years, at times cranking out a book a week on heroin. He died at 35 after fleeing an L.A. drug debt to Detroit, where — legend has it — the dealers he burned tracked him down and blew his head off. Dopefiend is the downest, dirtiest, and rawest of Goines’ ultra down ’n’ dirty books. Among other things, when his customers don’t have the money to pay, Porky, the heroin dealer, makes them do things with dogs that would make Cesar Millan rip his eyes out and burn them. DMX made a movie of another Goines novel, Never Die Alone, and hip-hop’s debt to the author is undeniable. To steal a line from 2Pac in Tradin’ War Stories, “Machiavelli was my tutor, Donald Goines my father…”
2. Junkie by William S. Burroughs
Originally published as an Ace paperback, meant for reading on the subway, Junkie was written under the pseudonym “William Lee,” with the subtitle “Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict.” The novel takes readers on a needle ride from Manhattan to Mexico City to New Orleans and back again. This is pre-Naked Lunch Burroughs, written in prose so hard-boiled you could crack your teeth on it. Junk, our narrator tells us, is not a drug — it’s a way of life. As ever, William Burroughs is the perfect tour guide in hell.
3. ELVIS: The Last 24 Hours by Albert Goldman
Elvis Presley did so many drugs, the America Pharmaceutical Association should put a plaque on his grave. And thanks to Lenny and Lennon biographer Albert Goldman’s tiny tome on the subject, we know exactly which ones he did. Think quaaludes, amphetamines, liquid Valium, codeine, Demerol, Dilaudid. (And that’s just breakfast.) By the end, narcotics took the worst thing narcotics can take from a man: bowel control — leaving us with the image of the drug-addled King chowing down on his last peanut butter-bacon-and-banana sandwich in a King-sized diaper. Goldman’s dignity-be-damned chronicle of sunset at Graceland may not be everybody’s cup of Elvis. But drug-lit lovers will eat it up.
4. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
The ultimate junky outsider saga. Eleven linking stories, all told by Johnson’s broke, strung-out narrator, the funny/tragic misfit whose unhinged experience of the world permeates our own until his most crazed utterance begins to make absolute sense. Johnson’s people survive the nonstop hells they make of their lives in a kind of staggered enchantment. This is the real, un-chic junkie life: petty crime, car wrecks, abortions, routine lying, and (of course) death. All rendered in dead-on Junky-Vision, which turns the grimmest situation into occasions for deranged humor and - weirdly more menacing — sweetness. Did I mention the main character’s name is “Fuckhead”? (Side note: Will Patton’s reading of the text may be the most perfect book on tape of all time.)
5. Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman
In language as toxically lush as the L.A. her characters inhabit, Braverman’s novel of a dysfunctional family with functioning addictions remains one of the darkest, bravest, flat-out beautiful and brutal drug novels ever written — though even calling it a drug novel sells it short. Dad has cancer and plays the ponies; daughter’s strung out on white powder and abusive men, and Mom… Well, just read the book. Braverman was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and each sentence of Lithium burns with an intensity so vivid you walk away singed.
6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…” From that legendary first sentence, the Godfather of Gonzo takes us on a trip through the screaming height of Freaks vs. Straights, Hippies vs. Law ’n’ Order–era America. Thompson’s savagely funny, drug-fueled riffs take us back to that bygone moment when flower power had begun to wilt and dropping acid in public could still be construed as an act of radical defiance. The kicker, of course, is that it all plays out in Vegas. The defining book of what used to be called the counterculture — and quite possibly the most American document penned since the Constitution. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
7. The King of Methlehem by Mark Lindquist
In the same year we first met Walter White, Mark Lindquist gave us a big-time Northwest speed cooker who called himself, alternately, Ted Nugent, Peter Farrelly, Lars Ulrich, or Howard “Founder of Starbucks” Schultz. Before penning this jacked-up forerunner of Crank Noir, the author was a state prosecutor in speed-soaked Washington state. Methlehem drips with the kind of deliciously sordid, mega-seamy meth-world details only cops or criminals could know. You’ll never think of Smurfs the same way again.
8. Digging the Vein by Tony O’Neil
Onetime member of near-huge band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Tony O’Neil’s life spiraled south until he ended up on the cop-and-shoot, motel-and-methadone circuit that constitutes reality for a non-dead Hollywood dope fiend. A horrific life — but great material. Any ex-junk professional can take you through the nerve-scraping lows of the drug life, but O’Neil owns a genuine gift for describing the highs. When he applies his massive chops to conveying the orgasmic rush and death’s-door delights of hard narcotics, you really get why whatever he had to lose to get them was worth losing — just for a taste. The author wasn’t killing the pain, he was chasing the dirty, unsustainable joy civilians can not even imagine.
9. Mine Enemy Grows Older by Alexander King
In what can only be described as the voice of a Junky Bon Vivant, raconteur and frequent Tonight Show guest Alexander King spins his memoir with a kind of festive depravity that renders his worst moments occasions for spectacular — and spectacularly over-the-top — writing. Describing his stay in 1950s America’s one-and-only government drug treatment center, in Lexington, Ky., King writes, “I would prefer to spend three days on an army cot, lashed to a belching, gonorrheal Eskimo prostitute, who had just finished eating walrus blintzes… ” A truly unique and celebratory chronicle of one dope fiend’s torments and delights.
10. The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren
Better remembered for Frank Sinatra’s pinpricked pupils in the movie version, Algren’s portrayal of backroom Chicago card dealer, part-time jazz drummer, and morphine addict Franky Machine won the National Book Award and cemented the author’s reputation as post-war literary giant. When Franky, suffering under what he refers to as “the thirty-five-pound monkey on my back,” accidentally kills his dope supplier, “Nifty Louie” Formorowsky, he has to hide the deed from his dim-witted gofer and running buddy, a dog thief named “Sparrow” Saltskin. On the run, Franky hides out with his neighborhood sweetheart, “Molly-O” Novotny, who lets him kick in her apartment, in a withdrawal scene so intense readers may find themselves crawling the walls and begging friends and family to either kill them or fix them one more shot. Or both.
Heroin, Crack, Ketamine, Murder, More Ketamine…the ’90s! James St. James tells the true story of Michael Alig, the New York club kid who wasted his dealer in a haze of Special K and dance music, then disposed of his corpse so ineptly it washed ashore and got him life in the penitentiary. The real joy of the book is St. James’ style, a rambling, chatty, up-five-nights, last-man-at-the-orgy-sounding combo of sheer observational brilliance and offhand madness. As the cover says, “He Came, He Partied, He Killed.”
12. Trinities by Nick Tosches
In Trinities, legendary novelist, Vanity Fair writer and OG Creem magazine icon Nick Tosches dives deep into the battle for global narco-domination between Eastern and Western criminal enterprises. The novel gives us the Mafia vs. the Chinese Triad, a war waged by hit men and dealers, feds and users, aging billionaires and pitiless gangs. Careening from New York to Asia, from East Harlem Italian joints to deepest Chinatown, the book is marked by the author’s super-human eye for details and particulars. By the end you’ll know how to properly serve squid and liquidate your enemies. No writer alive captures the secrets of dark-souled men like Nick Tosches. When he’s cooking on the page, nobody else comes close. In Trinities, the burners are all on high.
13. Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes by Terry Southern
While not every piece in this collection is about drugs, it’s a safe bet, given Southern’s reputation, that they were all written on drugs. One of them, “Blood of the Wig,” is such a wild-ass tale it bears mention all on its own. Here the drug in question is nothing you could find in a pharmacy or on the street. Rather, to quote the author himself: “It’s called ‘red-split’—it’s schizo-juice … blood … the blood of a wig.” That’s right, the ultimate high is what flows in the veins of the insane. Southern’s prose is screamingly funny, and so hip (in the pre-hipster sense), you almost want to snap your fingers when you read. Terry Southern is better known for Candy and The Magic Christian, but Red-Dirt may be his most twisted and fully realized triumph.
14. Dr. Feelgood: The Shocking Story of the Doctor Who May Have Changed History by Treating and Drugging JFK, Marilyn, Elvis, and Other Prominent Figures by Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes
Max Jacobson spent so much time hanging out and shooting up JFK that the Secret Service gave him the code name “Dr. Feelgood.” A refugee from Nazi Germany, the good doctor found his niche in America with his secret syringe-mix of amphetamine and vitamins. Along with the president, Jacobson’s crank-enhanced client list reads like the greatest dinner party ever assembled: Rod Serling, Mickey Mantle, Edie Sedgwick, Tennessee Williams, Bob Fosse, Truman Capote, Cecil B. Demille… On and on. Eventually the doctor took too much of his own medicine, his behavior became increasingly erratic, and he ended up killing his own wife after injecting her with his cocktail. Call it a secret pharma-history of the 20th century. And think of Max the next time you watch a Twilight Zone.
15. Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
If Dostoyevsky had been born in Brooklyn in 1928 instead of Moscow in 1821, he too might have started his greatest novel with the sentence, “Harry locked his mother in the closet.” Selby once described himself as “a scream looking for a mouth.” In this bleak, hysterical, heartbreaking tour de force, that scream has been channeled into a junkie wannabe dealer, his junkie-turned-prostitute girlfriend, and his diet pill–demented, wannabe game-show contestant mom. Defying all conventions of grammar, good taste, and what reviewers like to call “redemption,” Requiem captures nothing less than the doomed, dope-sick, self-mutilating soul of America itself. The words “genius” and “masterpiece” are overused — here they may be insufficient.
Jerry Stahl is the author of 8 books, including the narcotic memoir, Permanent Midnight, made into a movie with Ben Stiller, and the novels Bad Sex On Speed, Pain Killers, I, Fatty, (optioned by Johnny Depp) and - just out - Happy Mutant Baby Pills. Former Culture Columnist for Details, Stahl’s widely anthologized fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, The Believer, Playboy, The Rumpus and a variety of other places. He has also written extensively for film and television, including, most recently, the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.