Akashic Books, 191 pages, trade paperback, $15.95
No one could have predicted the success Akashic Books would have with their Noir Series. However, what’s even more incredible is that they’ve done it again with the Drug Chronicles. The two previous anthologies, The Cocaine Chronicles and The Speed Chronicles, received rave reviews and helped establish the series, but The Heroin Chronicles, the third entry in the series, is the finest so far — a collection of short fiction that puts this series on the same must-read category as the Noir Series.
The book kicks off with a superb introduction by Jerry Stahl, author of six popular novels and a man who know addiction intimately. The first few pages offer a glimpse of the grittiness that’s to come and allow Stahl to explain why the stories are pregnant with urgency, pain, and desperation: “Being a junkie is not a lifestyle choice — it’s an imperative of molecular chemistry.”
The first story is probably strategically placed to grab readers, and it accomplishes it marvelously. Tony O’Neill’s “Fragments of Joe” is packed with the same raw, honest power that have made the author’s novel cult classics, but it also brings a supernatural element into play and finishes with an explosion of grainy, wounded poetry.
In addition to editing the collection, Jerry Stahl also contributed one of the standout stories. “Possible Side Effects” is a funny look at both heroin and the world of legal drug side effects and the people who write about them. The narrator is a functional junkie who’s capable of holding a job, but only until things go wrong and he’s busted in his office’s bathroom, passed out and with a spike buried in his arm. The narrative makes fun of the romanticized vision of heroin some users have while simultaneously satirizing American culture.
The two stories that follow Stahl’s contribution are also worth mentioning. The first is LZ Hansen’s “Going Down,” a straightforward tale of misadventures, violence, and gallows humor that follows a prostitute as she somehow manages to get through a night full of danger, flying bullets, crazed dealers and junkies, and rogue cops. The second is Michael Albo’s “Baby, I Need to See a Man About a Duck,” which is exactly about that: a man and a duck. There’s no way to talk about the story without giving too much away, so just picture a junkie who just scored driving home with an angry duck in the car.
John Albert’s “The Monster” is probably the most violent story in the book and definitely packs the highest death count. However, what makes this one special is that the ending offers a glimmer of hope and that the aggressive behavior might have been motivated by something most readers will surely get behind.
The collection closes with Ava Stander’s “Poppy Love,” a story about how it’s sometimes impossible to escape. This one shines because the writing offers a great mixture of pain and poetry, brutal honesty, and timid optimism.
The Heroin Chronicles is full of stories about suffering, survival, overdoses, hepatitis C, poverty, self-loathing, humiliation, danger, death, degradation, guns, and self-destruction. They’re all told with unflinching sincerity by authors who have either been there or extremely close to it. If you’re familiar with the Drug Chronicles, you know saying this is the best one yet is saying a lot. If you’re not familiar with the series, this is definitely the book to start with.