The curative powers of fiction
Kim Wozencraft, James Fogle, and Seth Morgan all use their past history as addicts to fuel their debut novels
If there are, to paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, no second acts in American literary lives, that may be because so many of our best writers spend the first act under the influence. From the opium drone of Poe to the manic raps of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Mailer, ”stoned as mailer once put it with lush, with pot, with benny, saggy, Miltown, coffee, and two packs a day,” much of American literature has had more than a nodding acquaintance with the drug culture. Even the seemingly abstemious T.S. Eliot battled a nasty addiction to Nembutal.
The romantic myth of the altered mind has been a tought one for writers to kick. But three highly touted new novelists have found that tradition to be both a personal dead end and a literary launching pad.
When a writer goes sober, you can feel it in the work: consider John Cheever’s exhilarating Falconer, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, and Thomas McGuane’s To Skin a Cat. But what happens when someone only turns to writing after self-destructing on drugs? Dope drove Kim Wozencraft, Seth Morgan, and James Fogle over the edge and into prison. For them, fictional autobiography was a cure — a way to put a drug-shattered past behind them. Their first novels Rush, Homeboy, and Drugstore Cowboy raise two questions: What therapeutic good did they do the authors, and how good are they as art?
Kim Wozencraft’s Rush has had at least one salubrious effect on her life: It scored a record-breaking $1 million movie sale to Richard Zanuck.
Rush is good fiction, too, though its story sounds like pure pulp. Kristen Cates, a nice Catholic girl waiting tables at Wild Bill’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Ice Cream Saloon, goes to work as an undercover narcotics cop in rural Texas. She falls in love with her cop-mentor and helps him buy thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs from a hundred new friends, whom they betray to the state. To allay the dealers’ fears, regulations permit narcs to pretend to sample the wares. Kristen and her partner actually do drugs with the dealers before turning them in, and then celebrate by doing coke all night.
All of the above closely parallels Wozencraft’s own life. ”You can simulate smoking pot sometimes,” Wozencraft recalls, ”and I did manage to fake swallowing pills by hiding them in some gum I was chewing. But when you get down to snorting cocaine or shooting heroin, it’s hard to simulate.” Soon, like the character in the book, she was popping pills, tooting Peruvian flake, and jabbing veins for the same reason any junkie does. As Wozencraft observes, ”At a certain point in the investigation, I was no longer playing the role.”
One night in 1979, after their 97 suspects were busted, someone retaliated by walking into Wozencraft’s bedroom and blasting the couple with a shotgun. Her bloodied boyfriend was taken to the hospital. Heavily (and for once legally) sedated, she was placed in protective custody in the basement of the Tyler County jail. An FBI investigation later sent Wozencraft and her man to prison for violating civil rights by falsifying testimony.
While hiding out for a month in the Tyler jail, she began an incoherent journal to sort out her experiences. She hadn’t written anything since winning a high school prize for an essay about ”going to a Santana concert and seeing people smoke marijuana — and deciding I didn’t need it.” But she did need to write the story of Rush: ”It was my way of trying to hold onty my sanity — a way to come to grips with what happened to me.” During her 13-month prison stint, she wrote a serires of brief scenes, ”a warming-up process” for the novel. In 1983 she went to Columbia University, where she earned a B.A. and an M.F.A. in creative writing and turned her reminiscences into Rush.
Besides confronting her multiple-substance abuse, Wozencraft had to work through her hatred of the Texas judicial system, and in this too her fiction played a role. Kristen’s nemesis in the novel is the narc-squad boss, who refuses to take Kristen’s lover off the case when he’s crippled by addcition, then strong-arms them to trump up a drug charge to further the chief’s politcal career. The author insists that her characters are fictional, but her anger about similar events in her own life is palpably real. Rush might have been titled Rage. ”Writing was a way to get rid of the bitterness,” she says.
The writing process reminds her of the whirlpool tug of drugs. ”This book was the focus of my life for the past six years. When you start writing fiction, you’re somewhere else — you’re seeing the scenes. It’s a kind of escape, I suppose, but in addition there’s the focus on language, on the choices you make within each sentence to try to bring a little poetry into it. It can be an internal exploration, like drugs, but you’ve got to be aware and functional to do the writing, instead of gazing off into space.”
The very authenticity that anchors Rush limits its achievement. Its narrative, determined so much by what actually happened, is too jumpy and sinuous, and her taut prose goes a bit slack and pruple in the attempted-murder scene. Rush is most successful when the author keeps what must be overwhlming emotions tensely in check.
Still, her terse eloquence concerning the sensory particulars of a doper’s works and days is often as artful as William burroughs in his straightforward Junky mode (far superior to his ravings in Naked Lunch).
She says the act of reshaping her past into art proved therapeutic. ”Not that I didn’t have trepidation, but it wound up being beneficial to me. It allowed me to get a distance on my past. My next book is done with entirely new characters and a different voice — I hope to explore some other experiences.” In fiction as in life, Wozencraft proves that the pen is mightier than the spike.
Seth Morgan, author of the forthcoming Homeboy, is, like Wozencraft, a former addict and convict, but his novelistic method is the opposite of hers. Instead of meticulously refining a drug-addled past into a fiction of Hemingwayesque purity and restraint, he uses his former life as the raw material for phantasmagoria. Inspired by (among others) Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Faulkner’s late work, he delibertately spins his tale quite out of control.
Mogan’s life was out of control for a long time too. The son of Frederick Morgan, editor and cofounder of The Hudson Review, Seth went from Hotchkiss to Berkeley to Vacaville prison on an armed-robbery rap.
At Vacaville, Morgan says, his pal Charles Manson whiled away the time training cockroaches to carry cigarettes from cell to cell. Morgan wanted to tame the scarier creatures scuttling through his mind. ”I realized this time’d be lost if I did not try to interpret it and create something larger. I started writing Homeboy, sort of an amalgam of [the other convicts’] stories, plus my own. Joe Speaker the hero is certainly a surrogate.”
Homeboy‘s hero is, like Morgan, a onetime addict-dealer and San Francisco strip-joint barker who pimps for his girlfriend and celebrates what James Joyce called ”the lilies of the alley.” Morgan calls them ”hookers, hustlers, thieves and thugs; pennyweight ponces and flyweight flimflammers; diddyboppers, deadbeats and dopefiends…beggars, bummies and bindlestiffs of every bend.” Committed to ’60s-style literary wackismo, Morgan gives his characters names reminiscent of Pynchon: Bermuda Schwartze, Quick Cicero, Oblivia De Havilland. His style won him a prison writing award.
Paroled in 1981 after 32 months, Morgan, now 41, has resettled in New Orleans. ”I’ve not stopped hanging out with prostitutes and thieves,” the author says. ”They’re my people.” He says he has found a new life by writing about their druggy milieu. ”Whenever you take a problem and objectify it, it helps you kick out the demons and deaden them.” Writing is curative, he says, because it springs form the same compulsion that drug abuse does; ”There’s a drive born way down inside that must either create or destroy. Homeboy took a series of pretty much irrational, dire, and lethal events in my life and gave them meaning. One emerges annealed, made stronger.” His new motto is derived from Flaubert, he says: ” A writer must be bourgeois in his life in order to be violent in his work. You can set your watch by when I go to the YMCA in the morning — 5 a.m., so I can write from 7 to noon.”
But his fiction is less than disciplined. Homeboy‘s Hammett-like detective plot is god-awful, and his paragraphs can go as slow as an old lawnmower shoved uphill through six months’ growth of wet grass. ”It’s not one of these minimalist books by people who went to Sugarloaf up in Vermont,” Morgan says. ”It’s shooting-from-the-hip language, almost self-parody, full of nutso alliteration, wild manhandling of clichés, goofs on other writers.”
Morgan’s bizarre pastiches do, however, add up to something original. His hero is a strip-show barker, an Abominable Showman, the reincarnation of Neal Cassady. He blends shreds of classical learning with shards of streetwise observation. His nihilism is positively jubilant, its moral repugnance perversely attractive. He shows signs of life and the remians of a fine poet’s mind.
Morgan is currenlty working on a New Orleans crime novel. ”It won’t be so heavily dependent on the language,” he vows. ”I’ll create characters with more depth.” Abruptly, Morgan becomes a barker in full cry: ”I’m stakin’ out New Orleans — Robert Stone wrote about it with the quill of an angel in his best book, Hall of Mirrors, but I’ll beat him hands down! I’ll make characters come alive. They’ll stand up tall and they’ll cast shadows! It’ll be La Traviata in the Big Sleazy! I’ll always be an outlaw!”
As ex-junkie jailbird novelists go, Seth Morgan is strictly a tourist next to James Fogle. Fogle has spent 35 of his 53 years in prison, most of them at Walla Walla in Washington State. ”I gotta get past this parole board in July,” Fogle says by phone from Walla Walla, in theh folksy drawl that Matt Dillon mimicked in the film version of Drugstore Cowboy, his unpublished semiautobiographical novel. ”The last three months they haven’t let nobody go.”
But Fogle has some guaranteed good news coming up: Drugstore Cowboy finally will be published by Delta in November, when the film airs on Showtime (it hits video stores on May 10). He says the book also has been sold in Japan and Germany. Fogle will be a writer with an international reputation, but he still may have to work as a machinist in Walla Walla.
Fogle says the prison machine shop was his Yale and his Harvard. ”That helped me a lot, 20 years of machine work. It’s the same as writing: You start out with nothing, jsut a piece of steel, and you salways gotta plan it one step at a time, cut this, turn than, slot this, se tthings in a sequence. And you gotta end with something that completes it.”
”I wrote the book in 1977 on this old royal manual we used to write up reports. I’d work and dream all day, while runnin’ these lathes and millin’ machines, and then at night type up what I’d dreamed all day.” He based the tale on his drugstore robberies in Seattle’s Rainier Valley in 1974, but the characters ”were kinda a composite of the popele I knew. I never had no girls die or nothin’, but I used that to show how the hero would turn — it’d take somethin’ that drastic to turn him around, get him into treatment.”
Fogle is pleased that Drugstore Cowboy may help turn others away from drugs. ”They’re usin’ it in drug prevention programs all over the country. It shows people aren’t necessarily bad just because they have certain weaknesses.” But he didn’t write it as propaganda: ”I was just interested in this chracter study. I was tryin’ to show poeple as I saw them.”
Fogle’s career took off when he showed a manuscript to another convict. ”He said, you know the guy who wrote Birdman of Alcatraz, Thomas Gaddis, he teaches writings in the Oregon joint; you shoudl send it to him. He said he had a friend, Dan Yost, who was a really good writer, but he didn’t know any stories.” Yost moved to L.A., befriended Portland director Gus Van Sant, and wound up writing the screenplay of Drugstore Cowboy with him. ”I think Gus Van Sant did so good [in directing the film] because he told that story so close to the book,” Fogle says. ”They pulled that pretty good together.” His tone is admirning, like a machinist praising a fellow inmate’s lathe work.
The efficacy of the writing cure in Fogle’s case is a moot point: It’s difficult to be a drugstore cowboy behind bars. But writing definitely rescured him from the narcotizing effects of incarceration, and gave him a higher purpose than finding the next high. Fogle is midway through his next book. ”It’s called The House of Worms, about a futuristic institution where they’ll give you drugs as long as you’ll stay locked in your cell.” He says it’s society’s approach to drugs that causes problems, not the drugs themselves. ”I think they should be legal, myself. You ain’t never gonna solve anything with police. I don’t see why they don’t realize that.”
One mind-altering device does, however, worry the reformed drugstore cowboy. He has spent decades in prison ”out at the library, readin’ to keep my mind busy, just to keep from goin’ crazy.” His writing career is the product of Fogle’s effort to deal with his traumatic drug-addled past and tedious present. ”But now all these joints have TV’s everywhere. The prisoners are in the cell 22, 23 hours at a time, just watching TV.” fogle pauses, clearly upset. ”It’s almost like a mind-control thing.”