Vicodins and Percocets -The Goldfinch & War Cries Over Avenue CThursday, May 15, 2014
Two weeks ago, on Monday May 5 I took out from the Oakridge branch of the Vancouver Public Library, Donna Tart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. It was a fast read which meant that in order not to pay the one dollar a day late fee (a fast read cannot be extended) I would have to read 100 pages per day as this novel is 771 pages long.
I must confess that I finished The Goldfinch on Friday the 16th but I have kept it for a few extra days so I can write this blog.
The book had two NY Times reviews. One on the front page of the Sunday Book Review Magazine was written by the likes of Stephen King. The second review was by the Times’ Michiko Kakutani who wrote the following:
Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius’s bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.
My guess is that Kakutani must have been out to lunch (at Carnegie Deli, perhaps) when she wrote that. I was never really able to read those 100 pages per day because I felt the same way about this novel as watching horror movies as a boy.
I remember my father taking me to see Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. When one of the hapless guys (I do not remember which one) approaches the coffin in which Bela Lugosi is about to wake I placed my hands in front of my face. I did not want to see what was going to happen. In the same way the intensity of The Goldfinch forced me to close it every night.
The only other novel in my memory in which the protagonists seem to inhabit a world or stupor and unreality is Jerome Charyn’s 1985 novel War Cries Over Avenue C. When I read it I felt as if the characters were all hallucinating as Martin Sheen did in his hotel room in Apocalypse Now.
Avenues A, B, C, and D form a dirty appendage to Manhattan’s Lower East Side: These Alphabet Blocks have become Indian country, the land of murder and cocaine. Though there are still pockets of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Italians and, Germans on and around Avenue A, such pockets have little bearing on the internal affairs of the new Indian country. The population is still overwhelmingly Catholic but even the faithful at Mary Help of Christians, when asked about their own Alphabetville, will answer that Christ stopped at Avenue A.
War Cries Over Avenue C - Jerome Charyn
An every-other-day habit was still a habit, as Jerome had often reminded me, particularly when I didn’t stick too faithfully to the every-other-day part. New York was full of all kinds of daily subway-and-crowd horror; the suddenness of the explosion had never left me, I was always looking for something to happen, always expecting it just out of the corner of my eye, certain configurations of people in public places could trigger it, a wartime urgency, someone cutting in front of me the wrong way or walking too fast at a particular angle was enough to throw me into tachycardia and trip-hammer panic, the kind that made me stumble for the nearest park bench; and my dad’s painkillers, which had started as relief for my nigh-on uncontrollable anxiety, provided such a rapturous escape that soon I’d started taking them as a treat: first and only-on-weekends, then an after-school treat, then the purring aetherous bliss that welcomed me whenever I was unhappy or bored (which was, unfortunately, quite a lot); at which time I made the earth-shaking discovery that the tiny pills I had ignored because they were so insignificant and weak-looking were literally ten times as strong as the Vicodins and Percocets I’d been downing by the handful – Oxycontins, 80s, strong enough to kill someone without tolerance, which person by that point was definitely not me; and when at last my endless-seeming trove of oral narcotics ran out, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, I’d been forced to start buying on the street. Even dealers were censorious of the sums I spent, thousands of dollars every few weeks; Jack (Jerome’s predecessor) had scolded me about it repeatedly even as he sat on a filthy beanbag chair from which he conducted his business, counting my hundreds fresh from the teller’s window. “Might as well light it on fire, brah.” Heroin was cheaper – fifteen bucks a bag. Even if I didn’t bang it – Jack had laboriously done the math for me on the inside of a Quarter Pounder wrapper – I would be looking at a much more reasonable expenditure, something in the neighborhood of four hundred a fifty dollars a month.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
They called her tiger lady. No one knew why she’d come to these badlands, this villa of analfabeticos. She didn’t sell coca leaves to the turistas. She carried a pair of .45s under her heart. At first they thought she was with the federales, a spy in God’s little house. But El Presidente Reagan wasn’t smart enough to rent a Talmud torah. No, she was a fugitive, one of their own kind. She’d gathered a little army around her, fugitives like herself. A twitching maniac and a Russian bear. And this grab-bag army chased gypsy thieves out of the projects and obliged the Medicaid mills to lower their price. She was the little Hebrew godmother with cacarañas in her face, memories of smallpox. She stole nothing from shopkeepers. Her cacarañas kept the peace.
War Cries Over Avenue C – Jerome Charyn
Both novels scared the hell out of me. The Goldfinch because its main protagonist pops pills with what seems a logical purpose. War Cries Over Avenue C, filled with images of a place that resembled a magic realism gone bad convinced me that its author, Charyn, must have been consuming drugs in huge quantities.
When I asked Charyn directly, a man who sops his plate of finished spaghetti with a piece of bread like an educated Frenchman, he simply told me that the novel represented the reality of his life.
Both Tartt and Charyn (many more than Tartt’s three) have written in these two novels about a New York that goes beyond Times Square and the Met. Worse (or is it better?) Tartt removes her shell-shocked Theo Decker as thirteen-year-old to an unreal (to me for its perverse authentic-sounding reality) suburb of Las Vegas where every drug I have not taken is consumed and smoked with chips, beer and vodka by two precocious and scary teenagers-from-hell.
Without going into too many details I am living in proximity to a similar teenager-from-hell. One more reason why I could not read Tartt’s The Goldfinch with the rapidity that NY Times’s Kakutani mentioned.
Looking at my teenager-from-hell I remember the first time I was asked about my stance on drugs around 1973 when I was teaching high school in Mexico City. I was aware even then that there were questions that could never be answered as black or white without considering the consequences that such an answer would concur. Politicians of the US Republican-type do not seem to know about his and they pontificate on abortion, God, guns, global warming and Darwinian fossils to their peril.
My answer was as follows: There are two ways to enjoy a tomato. You can buy one at a supermarket. You take it home and you slice it. You sprinkle a liberal amount of MSG and black pepper and you enjoy it. Or you pick a ripe tomato from the vine, with a salt-shaker in hand and you take a big bite and splatter stuff all over your shirt.
My class seemed to understand my drift and I was never asked again. But my friends were constantly trying to get me drunk or high. It all made me think of my grandmother’s Selecciones del Reader’s Digest (she read it in Spanish) in that section called The Power of Positive Thinking. It made me think of the opposite and how I have an extremely powerful version of negative thinking. I have popped sleeping pills a few times to sleep only to tell myself that because I had taken these pills I would not sleep.
Some 34 years ago while baking in the sun at Wreck Beach my friend Maurice D. urged me most strongly to put some really good hash into my Petersen’s pipe (I was smoking Three Nuns – None Nicer at the time). I did and after a while I asked Maurice to hand me my water bottle. He brusquely asked me, “Why don’t you get it yourself?” I told him (it came out as a stutter), “Because I can’t.” Those opiates make me stutter and I hate losing control of my speech. I cannot stand the smell of pot. Tobacco (I have not smoked for 20 years) is unique in that it smells differently to all other lit weeds.
It was 20 years ago while sitting on a stool listening to a Vancouver alternative scene band at Gary Taylor’s Rock Room that I was approached by a friendly and chubby woman, “Are you Alex?” I answered in the affirmative so she asked me to place my hand in front of her. She deposited a largish pile of white powder. I did not want to do. She gesticulated her instructions. I snorted the stuff up my nose. Later she returned and asked me, “What was it like for you?” My answer, “It was like going up the stairs from the NY City subway up to the street. I was hit by a barrage of fresh cold air.” My answer did not seem to have been the right one. I never saw her again.
To make this longish blog short I can only state that I am a person with a phobia of addictions of any type and that my knowledge of opiates and their kind is limited.
I have no memory if War Cries Over Avenue C ended well and I am not about to tell you that The Goldfinch ends well or not. I just defy you to get the novel and see if you can read 100 pages per day.
My hope is that my teenager-from-hell does see the light. Meanwhile I will just put my hands up to cover my face and try not to look through my fingers.