Everyone has heard the saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover," but what if two covers have similar subjects and the exact same title?
I've heard stories of writers coming up with the "perfect" title for his or her book, only to discover that it had already been taken; but I'd never met two authors who had books with the same title until this year.
I met Joe Clifford through a mutual friend at a writers' conference in Minneapolis in the spring. Clifford writes crime fiction but launched his writing career with the publication of a memoir, Junkie Love (Battered Suitcase Press). Junkie Love is about two things: being a junkie and being in love with a junkie. We swapped copies of our books and I added Junkie Love to my massive to-read pile.
A few weeks later, I found myself at a poetry festival in Prague. One of the readers on the bill was Phil Shoenfelt, a musician from London who played with the post-punk band Khmer Rouge in New York and has written an autobiographical novel that was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2001. The book was about a junkie in love with a junkie. You can probably guess the title.
Intrigued by this odd coincidence, I started reading Shoenfelt's book immediately and was impressed by his prose. At the festival, Shoenfelt had performed poetry and then sang some songs he'd written while he played guitar. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't expecting much from the book. I've read quite a few rock-and-roll memoirs and most of them are interesting to read but not particularly well written. Shoenfelt's book was different. It was a novel, for one thing, and in careful, measured prose presents a first-person account of a young junkie's infatuation with a Londoner named Cissy.
At the outset of the novel, the narrator is a recreational drug user with a good-paying job who has sworn off heroin for good when he falls in love with a hopeless junkie. His love is so intense that he concocts a plan to help her by quitting his job and selling all of his possessions and using the funds to decrease Cissy's heroin intake without horrible withdrawal symptoms.
Not surprisingly, this plan fails: "it suddenly seemed that this whole idea I'd concocted of weaning Cissy away from her habit was merely a pretext that my unconscious mind had formulated for getting me back into close contact with heroin again. I was aware of a hidden part of me that had its own agenda of secret appetites and desires, that moved of its own volition and took no account of 'me' at all. I could feel it inside, working away, moving silently along its own invisible tracks; and not only that, it was much stronger than me—of this, I was totally sure."
Shoenfelt's psychological observations are precise and astute—so much so that it's a book I'd recommend to anyone who has difficulty understanding why addicts behave the way they do, doing the same thing over and over when they know it will result in heartbreak and ruin.
There's plenty of ruination in Joe Clifford's Junkie Love. Clifford's story is largely set in San Francisco during the '90s. Clifford is a musician, too, but his artistic aspirations are annihilated by his addiction.
"You are not William Burroughs and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference if Kurt Cobain was slumped over in an alleyway in Seattle the day that Bleach came out. There is no junkie chic. This is not SoHo, and you are not Sid Vicious. You are not a drugstore cowboy and you are not spotting trains. You are not part of anything—no underground sect, no counter-culture movement, no music scene, nothing. You have just been released from jail and are walking down Mission Street and are alternating between taking a hit off a cigarette and puking, looking for coins on the ground so you can catch a bus as you shit yourself."
Both books are equally uncompromising. Both are harrowing reminders of the grisly algebra of addiction. Being a memoir, Clifford's story is told in a style that is artful yet direct, but the story is presented in a non-linear fashion that keeps the reader guessing even though the outcome is assured.
"Not to give away the ending," Clifford quips in his signed inscription on the front page of my copy, "but I live."