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Arts & Culture

Helton's 'Drugs' doesn't demand destruction or redemption

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Drugs by J.R. Helton, Seven Stories Press, $15.95, 251 pages

Books about drug use appear regularly on publisher's lists, and whether written as fiction or biography, their plots usually follow a pattern that culminates in the message laid down ages ago by Sunday preachers: I've sinned, seen the darkness of hell, but now surrender to the light.

J.R. Helton's new novel Drugs ends with his protagonist looking towards heaven, too. But Jake, a college professor, born-and-bred Texan, and functioning drug user, is not pleading for forgiveness. High on music enhanced by the outlawed pharmaceutical drug MDMA (known as Ecstasy), he drives to meet friends for dinner in a ritzy suburb north of San Antonio. When the X surges, he pulls the black Mercedes off the Stone Oak Parkway, parks, and opens the sun roof to see a cascade of stars appearing beyond the city lights. "Feeling successive waves of pure comfort and calm, the happiness passing over my body in time to the music, I knew I was in a perfect moment with my body and soul, a moment I would never see again."

Heralded by underground artist R. Crumb (who campaigned to get the book published and illustrated the cover) as "starkly honest, darkly funny, acutely observant … captures the tragic absurdity of human life," this fictionalized memoir about a lifetime of drug use probably won't be chosen by 12-Step program book clubs. And that's a shame, for Helton's dryly humorous and unsentimental descriptions of the effects of marijuana, cocaine, MDMA, alcohol, nicotine, hydrocodone (and many other illicit and legal substances) are full of the self-honesty praised by recovery groups.

The story of Jake's life from high school jock, early marriage and poorly paid construction work, more struggle, ennui, and eventual affluence is embedded in a veritable pharmacopeia. Inspired by the glossary of drug terms in his 1977 edition of William S. Burroughs' experimental novel Junkie, Helton has ascribed a separate section to each drug recounted.

Pros and cons are discussed, and the inevitable drawbacks of long-term use, such as the need for ever-increasing higher doses, acknowledged. Cocaine is painted as a soul-numbing and money-consuming obsession. Methedrine is tasted, then shunned with horror, while marijuana is described as a largely benign mood enhancer, though of dubious benefit in developing memory skills. For Jake, sex is a drug too, one that when mixed with copious amounts of alcohol becomes a violent cocktail.

But Helton refuses to assign the victim's role to his characters. Taking a swipe at the "pusher-man" stereotype, he shows instead young Jake's difficulty in getting older friends to let him try their supply. Dealers — some quite affluent — are depicted as fellow users with a mercantile bent. Midway through the story Jake's drug use takes an ironic twist after a life-threatening accident, as pain-killers become a dreary necessity rather than a pleasant amusement. There's no pity for drug users here, but no scorn, either.

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