Kiss of the Needle
Addiction gets real in 'Like Being Killed'
By Patrick Sullivan
WHO DEPENDS more on heroin than junkies? Contemporary fiction writers, of course. The past few years have seen enough books and movies made from books about the hip thrill of hopeless addiction to make even the late William Burroughs head for a 12-step program. Just a pinch of the deadly powder seems to add instant chic, compelling pathos, a dependable slab of raw emotional flesh to cover a story that might otherwise be bare bones.
But, as more than one addict has discovered, heroin is tricky stuff. Even strong, capable writers with something interesting to say often come to grief under the kiss of that sharp needle.
So, what are we to make of the latest entry in this questionable genre, Ellen Miller's Like Being Killed (Dutton; $23.95)? On the one hand, this tale of an intelligent but self-destructive young woman taking a nose dive into addiction contains plenty of hip nihilism, gleeful squalor, and other elements of which we've already had an overdose from the literary smack pack. But some powerful ideas and excellent writing are also on display here. Ambition and talent combine to make this a first novel that demands to be taken seriously.
One thing that attracts writers to heroin is that the drug packs a transgressive wallop that's hard to beat. Heroin appears to be an utter rejection of suburban values (or is it the ultimate manifestation of rampant consumerism?). Everyone from parents to politicians is telling us (quite sensibly) not to stick that needle in our arm. So what could be more hip than giving them all the finger by turning yourself into a drug-crazed zombie?
On the surface, Like Being Killed seems determined to exploit our thirst for that chemical cool. But then comes the punch line: The author has been laughing at the reader the whole time. Smack addicts think they're the coolest people on earth, she points out, but the truth is that, for the junkie, heroin is "unromantic, neither sacred or satanic ... simply inevitable." Miller underscores that quotidian reality with her main character.
Ilyana Meyervich describes herself as a "suicidal, strung-out, psychotic Jew under thirty." For years she has seen heroin as a likely destination in her desperate search for oblivion. But she's the antithesis of the big-screen smack fiend: She's more clumsy than cool, and even after she succumbs to the white line, one friend calls her a "chunky junkie." The plump, highly intellectual Ilyana is radically different from those Hollywood images of emaciated model types with too much eye makeup who seem to have embraced heroin as a diet aid.
You know there's going to be trouble when this ticking time bomb becomes the roommate of the one person who might be capable of penetrating her thick shield of cynicism. Susannah Lyons is pure suburbia, raised in a loving family, happy, confident, deeply empathic. She is also a woman so straight that she doesn't even keep caffeinated tea in the house.
"Have you, by any chance, read [Jean Paul Sartre's] No Exit?" Ilyana asks her.
"No, it sounds scary," replies Susannah.
But Susannah is not stupid--just sweetly naive. That innocence is both deeply appealing and profoundly appalling to Ilyana, and it doesn't take long for tension to build, secrets to accumulate, and the situation to explode into betrayal and recrimination.
Like an addict, Like Being Killed suffers from excess. It is some 50 pages too long, and in places, seems to be simply spinning its wheels. At times, Miller's prose labors mightily to prove just how darn clever both she and her character are: "AnnaMaria said porn with such exaggerated Brooklynite disgust that I could almost see the circumflex, weighing down the word's terrible vocalic nucleus, in the phonetic key of AnnaMaria's lexicon."
But you won't have to wade through too many such passages. The book has a compelling tale to tell, and for the most part, it is told well. Heroin is put to clever use here, both a grim reality and a perfect metaphor for fundamental human alienation.
Vivid images, fascinating characters, and graceful writing make this a powerful tale of transgression, transformation, and redemption. By the last page, Like Being Killed has wrung our assumptions inside out and left us wondering what we really know--about drugs and about life.
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From the August 6-12, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.