If a middle-aged man came up to you and started listing every drug he’d ever taken, including pot & alcohol, and telling you all of the mundane things that happened to him while he was high, would you stand there and listen to him? What if he threw in stuff like, “nicotine, beer, wine and liquor were and are the official state-sanctioned drugs to get high or kick from in the United States”? If you’d tell this loser to go bother someone else, then stay far away from J. R. Helton’s Drugs.
I got a call one morning from 7 Stories Press, the publishing house that put out Christopher Howard’s second-debut novel, Tea of Ulaanbaatar. “Did you get the book we sent?” I hadn't checked my mail in weeks, so I drove out to my PO box and found two pieces of mail: a letter from a crazy person with no return address, and a copy of J.R. Helton's Drugs. I like to judge books by covers. If a cover looks like total bullshit, then the publisher obviously has no taste, which might extend to the writing itself. Drugs’ cover totally rules. It features the work of the famous underground illustrator Robert Crumb and has these twisted drugged-out characters sort of staring the reader down, sweating & violently shaking, with bubbles of highly altered reality radiating from the main character’s skull. Not bad. But the book is called Drugs. That’s the best they came up with?
The book is basically a series of lengthy drug trip reports organized like a diary, with little bits here and there about life and all that shit. The main focus is on the drugs themselves, their highs, and all sorts of generalizations about what kinds of people use them.
It starts with a story of Jake growing up in a suburb of Houston and the first time he smoked pot. He describes the high like someone would to an alien who’d never heard of the stuff. In the next chapter Jake's friend lets him try heroin and, obviously, he likes it. But all that momentum died abruptly: we're told that Jake never tried heroin again. PCP comes next. A friend slipped some into a joint (Texas, the land of the wet-cigarette!) and it makes Jake feel real sick. He never does that again either. Jake gets some methadone, next, but he gets cut off from his friend's supply because he borderline OD'd. No more of that, either.
The book chugs along, with all these disjointed drug stories until Jake starts using cocaine. He ends up hanging out with this couple who use and sell a lot. The boyfriend is a real fucking violent crack head and it's not long until they're freebasing. (This is the same as crack, basically. Only in the 70s, when this part of the book takes place, nobody knew about the baking soda method of turning coke into its smokable form. Helton doesn't describe freebase at all, so who knows which method they supposedly used in this "fictional memoir.") At this point Jake starts getting really crazy and one of the dealers, a “serial killer” just out of prison, has to calm him down. Right about the time that Jake is really starting to feel the drug’s pull, when he sells his girlfriend’s car to get coke money and is putting up with all these gruesome things that go on, he and his girlfriend just get up and move to Austin, again, ending any momentum the story had.
Then we have Jake on speed. He does too much, starts puking, freaks out, and gets rushed to the emergency room. The chapter ends with Jake calling speed “one of the nastiest most toxic and useless drugs on the planet” and a wimpy PSA: don't use it, guys!
Leaving his upper-phase in the past, Jake starts drinking a lot. He gets a new, really hot alcoholic girlfriend and together they have a dysfunctional relationship. There's lots of drunk driving and fucking of multiple women. One of his old druggie buddies even calls him a pimp. This goes on for a few years. But then he injures his back and starts using pharmaceutical opiates (codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, etc.). No real connection is made between these pharmaceuticals that he becomes addicted to and the heroin or methadone he got into earlier in the book, even though they’re basically the same thing. Jake ends up at a pain management clinic and gets a solid hydrocodone (Vicodin) prescription. This drags out for a huge chunk of the book.
In the last quarter or so of the book, Jake is way over the hill. But this doesn't stop him from trying ecstasy and 'shrooms for the first time and getting obsessed with them. We're dragged through pseudo-philosophical high-deas, one after another, as life winds down. He heads to 6^th^ Street in Austin, now that he's way too old for that shit, and talks to some younger girls: “They were cute, but dumb, with little clue as to culture. This was understandable, as America’s culture had become so corporatized and commercial that little rang true or authentic anymore.”
This illustrates how Helton handles women. They’re all sexual, all one-dimensional, and not believable at all. The few times we read about his first wife at length are during detailed sex scenes. Everything she says sounds about as believable as a porn star’s lines before she gets fucked. Both of his main coke dealers’ girlfriends end up randomly begging him for sex—he delivers. His second wife is also a characterization, not sexual, but motherly. She spends most of her time babying him during his drug freak-outs and binges.
Then Jake ends up at a Planet K in Austin buying nitrous-filled whip-its, his new high, and talks about how young people can tell that he’s still “legit” even though he’s a regular-looking old guy. He uses this to transition into a long essay about the Drug War, how alcohol is really the most evil drug, how it’s not fair that alcohol or nicotine users don’t go to prison, and how the church really rules America. The end.
Helton makes the mistake of believing that drug using—the action all by itself—is interesting and builds the entire book around it. He lists every drug he’s ever done. He shoves all this pointless sex and violence at us saying, Look at all these terrible & insane things that drugs made us do! He rattles off empty rhetoric about “corporate America.” He doesn't give us the technical, logical information on drugs that the author's bio suggests he has. He doesn't show us an example of your typical, more-or-less responsible drug user. He makes a big show out of an extreme stereotype and worst of all it's not even funny.
This book compares itself to William S. Burroughs' Junky, a graphic, hilarious, and deadpanned story of the junky lifestyle in the 50s. Drugs falls so far short of that mark that any comparison is shameful. I’d rather read trip reports on Erowid.com, the biggest online warehouse of drug knowledge and experiences, one million times over than ever touch this book again. Buyers beware: Crumb cover or not, Drugs is a fake.