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Review: Addict by Stephen Smith

March 6, 2011 6 comments

Originally published independently in 1997, Stephen Smith’s Addict has gone through fourteen printings, and according to publisher Westworld International’s website it has sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. Seemingly it is the only book published by that outfit and the only book Stephen Smith has written. It does appear regularly in the Amazon.co.uk bestsellers list in the category ‘Alcohol & Drug Abuse’, which is what first brought it to my attention.

With its single-word title in large shaky capitals on a lurid cover, including a pair of crazed eyes staring out at the reader, Addict does, at first glance, rather fulfil the expectations of the stereotypical tale of drug misadventure. Written in a basic, non-literary style, replete with copy editing errors and typographical oddities, it also has a very ‘homemade’ quality. Yet as a book it works. As E.M. Forster said in Aspects of the Novel, a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’ 

And many of the things that happen in Addict are just too weird and too farfetched not to be true: it’s full of stuff you just couldn’t make up. But again, conversely, it isn’t entirely believable either, having, in certain sections, something of the air of the drunkard’s tall tale told in the pub, piling on the exaggerations till breaking point is reached. When you consider that here you have a narrator who was so completely out of his tree for most of the story that he didn’t know what was happening even as it was happening, who was constantly in and out of mental hospitals, at one point undergoing electroshock therapy that wiped out his entire memory for several years, the term ‘unreliable’ takes on a whole new level of connotations! 

But whatever criticisms one may make of the broad strokes of Addict’s storytelling and the embellishments that feel like fabrication, ultimately the portrait of addiction that it paints is authentic. And it perfectly conveys one essential quality of the addict/alcoholic: that of being a compulsive fantasist, unable to resist the appeal of fantasy over reality. 

Simultaneously initiated at the age of fourteen into gay oral sex and dexedrine, Stephen proceeds to spend decades taking lethal quantities of the little yellow pills, together with drink and other drugs, whilst pursuing a life of petty crime and rent boy activities, as well as having several tumultuous relationships with women. He makes huge amounts of money and either squanders it or hides it and forgets where. He gets involved in London’s ’60s gangster underworld, which is fun at first but eventually lands him in serious trouble. Forever darting from one project to another, he leads a madcap fly-by-night existence, continually stuck in amphetamine overdrive. 

There are many manic and psychotic episodes as loss of control, paranoia and mounting dysfunctionality take their toll. Familiar events from history, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landings and various Beatles’ hits whiz by, signposting the passage of time, and we begin to wonder how Stephen can possibly still be alive and have a functioning heart, brain and liver in the face of such prolonged excess. There is much repetitiveness in the swinging from high to low, and as a true addict Stephen just cannot stay clean and get off the rollercoaster. Inevitably skid row beckons, and he descends further through the various strata of the underclasses, into his own Hieronymus Bosch-like hell. 

Such an account of unbridled craziness, misery and hopelessness does make for a breathless compulsive read, and despite its lack of literary charm Addict is never boring. It has much to tell us, not only about the surface of drug addiction but also about the mechanics of the addictive personality, where anything and everything is grist for the mill—be it money, relationships, risk taking or plain lunacy for its own sake. In its own very idiosyncratic way Addict is a serious work.

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