"How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z"

A volume of apergus on junk holds that addiction is no excuse for bad behavior.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Voices don't come any cooler -- in the sense of hip as well as of remote, uningratiating -- than the one Ann Marlowe writes with in "How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z." (The only uncool thing about the book is its gimmicky subtitle.) Marlowe was that phenomenon unheard of in the literature of junk, the recreational user -- a concept, she notes, that many Americans will not countenance:

When I published a cover story on heroin in the Village Voice in 1994, I got lots of nasty letters that all agreed on one thing: because I emerged from years of heroin use without noticeable health, career or financial effects, I wasn't qualified to write about dope. I didn't really have the experience, because the sign of really having the experience is ruining your life.

Marlowe had a serious but controlled habit for seven years, from 1988 to 1995; she snorted rather than shooting up ("never more than a bag a day"), and she always kept her head securely screwed on. "When I heard about rich acquaintances spending $200 or $300 a day on dope, my practical side took over. $2100 a week -- shit, I could buy a Chanel suit every week for that! I could lease a Ferrari!" She recoils from any notion of the addict as victim:

Not for a minute can I subscribe to the popular view, encouraged by William Burroughs, of addiction as uncontrollable need. Still less can I take addiction as the excuse for bad behavior. No one would condone a person who stole or neglected her children because he or she was feeling bad from the flu, and all but the severest dopesickness is no more rigorous than a nasty flu. Unpleasant? Yes. Sufficient explanation for amoral selfishness? Scarcely.

Her book contains what is probably the least histrionic, least hysterical writing about heroin to be found outside medical literature. And on top of that it's engaging and it's smart. The "A to Z" of the subtitle refers to the alphabetical arrangement of brief essays by topic/title: "Abstention," "Addiction," "Aging" and so forth. This arbitrary structure (or absence of structure) replicates, in a peculiarly apt way, the anomie of the drug experience -- it suggests the voluntary relinquishment of an otherwise available control. Yet at the same time, Marlowe's grimly rational apergus are appealingly 18th century in the sculptural rigor of their execution. Spend enough time thinking about any topic and it can yield gold. The pleasures of the book lie less in Marlowe's argument, such as it is, than in her random acute perceptions:

Heroin inflects the East Village. It's like riding or sailing in upper-class society: it's not that everyone does it, but the general cultural style is influenced by some people doing it.

Cool is the way of describing from certain exterior viewpoints what registers as loneliness from the inside.

Like youth, heroin is best understood in retrospect: from within the experience, you cannot see it for what it is.

Marlowe's intelligence is charming, which is a good thing, since she seems to regard charm per se as a threat to integrity. She goes out of her way to demonstrate how unkind and unpleasant she can be, and she is generous with her contempt: Her parents were oddballs, her boyfriends were assholes, the friends of her drug days were losers. And only seven pages before the end she makes what I think is a serious tactical error: In the midst of discussing the events that led up to her kicking, she mentions that "because I'd made $150,000 in the first few months of the year, about what I normally made in a full year, I wasn't working very hard."

A hundred and fifty grand? Annually? This isn't a surprise, exactly -- she's already talked about attending Harvard Business School and working as a financial analyst at a New York investment bank. (A description of the requisite charcoal-gray and black business uniform affords her the opportunity for a great line about "the late Goya splendor of the 8 o'clock Monday morning meeting.") Still, this nugget of information, coming after many pages of recollection about the East Village dives she hung out in and the junkie rockers she slummed with, doesn't make her any more sympathetic. A seven-year heroin habit, you realize, isn't the only chasm that stretches between her and her readers. Not that her income makes any moral difference, or any difference to the excellence of this book -- and it is excellent. But I was glad that I was reading about Ann Marlowe's life, rather than sitting across the table from her and listening to her tell me about it.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

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