Reviewed by J.A. Kazimer
Have you ever fallen in love? Felt the rush of chemicals as they hit your bloodstream? Wanted something so bad that you would die for just one more taste? Welcome to Joe Clifford’s second novel, Junkie Love.
Junkie Love is a brilliantly woven tale of one man’s journey through mental illness, grief, longing, and self-abuse. The words are often heart-wrenching as Clifford explores the shady streets of San Francisco from tweaker pads to the shooting gallery, Hepatitis Heights. The narrative reads like a love letter to the City on the Bay, to a world few can fathom, but still, the reader is drawn into like heated liquid into a needle.
From the first page, everything you experience through Clifford’s graceful yet biting narrative is beautiful and tragic. The journey over a decade of addiction to seek redemption is compelling, daunting, with no easy escape or roadmap home found in track-marred arms. But Clifford himself describes this best:
And this is my life. I am thirty years old. I don’t know where my wife is. I have lesions peppering my face. My arms are riddled with abscesses. I am six feet and one inch tall, and I weigh one hundred and fifty pounds. When I first became addicted to drugs shortly after arriving in San Francisco, I told myself I was just a white, suburban kid playing the part of a scumbag junkie. It will give me material for an album or book I’ll write someday; I am not like these other people. But today, as the ATF drags Donnie away to San Bruno Prison over the din of television theater, and as the rest of the Heights’ death-sentence kids drag themselves into their respective dark corners to inhale aluminum foil or cook up a fix or just beg for a twice-pounded cotton, I realize I am not playing a part anymore; I really am a scumbag junkie. And I don’t know how I am going to get home.
While Junkie Love is reminiscent of Kerouac’s On the Road, with its burning desire of a young man striving to experience life beyond the straight world, or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting narrative of an addict struggling to survive, Clifford goes beyond simple introspection or heroin chic to develop a fully rounded novel filled with enduring friendships, rock ’n’ roll, the harsh realism of mental illness and the meaning of home and family.
Junkie Love thrives in areas of moral ambiguity, exposing the reader to characters who both disgust and beguile, to experiences we wouldn’t wish upon our worst enemy, and yet, we can’t stop reading. During countless scenes, I felt my hands over my eyes, peering through the tiny cracks in my fingers, not wanting to look, but unable to look a way.
Excerpt, page 66:
I have to ask this kid a question before I can fix. I am sure of it.
Stop what you’re doing and ask the question!
“Hey,” I say, stopping my needle just before it pierces the skin of a small popped vein in my right hand. The skinny kid with the bad tattoos looks up, rubber tourniquet tied around biceps, but he doesn’t stop poking his arm, which turns poked-spot white. His nose is dripping, and, though he is looking right at me, only a foot away, he can’t quite find my eyes to make direct contact.
“Did you mix this up with a clean needle?” I ask.
“This hit I’m about to do. Did you mix it up with a clean needle?”
“You don’t have HIV?”
“No,” I say, “I don’t,” handing him back the needle.
If that scene doesn’t terrify you to your very veins, Clifford has many more that will.
Perhaps what I loved best was how Clifford compels the reader to experience the sickness of stabbing a needle into your vein for, oftentimes, an impotent pleasure, while at the same time, making you wonder if you could score from the guy down the block, because Junkie Love forces us to explore our deepest, darkest fear: a fear of a life unlived, of a wasted chance, of counting the minutes until you take your last breath.
From page 47 Junkie Love
Up until this trip and that book [Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler], I’d been aimless, a slacker failing out of college, wasting afternoons drinking beer and playing whiffle ball at my part-time job for the town’s Community Center, pinning my hopes on a band making it big by rocking weekends at a bar called The Cool Moose, and all the while, in the back of my mind, I was terrified I’d get stuck married to some townie, whose ass would continue to swell long after the babies came, as I wasted away in a soul-sucking 9-to-5 at the paper mill, counting the minutes until I died.
But now I had a direction. And I knew where I’d go.
Kerouac’s San Francisco.
And in Kerouac’s San Francisco, Clifford finds something infinitely more important than this story, more essential than a junkie’s burnt spoon. Joe Clifford finds his voice. A voice the world is lucky survived and now thrives in verse. A voice filled with sincerity, salvation, and splendor. A voice as stark, unforgiving, and mesmerizing as blood backing into the needle. A voice that will scar you long after you read the last words: I want to be there again, wherever that is now, whatever I have become, because it always feels good to be back home.
J.A. Kazimer is a writer living in Denver, CO. Books include The Junkie Tales, CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story, SHANK and Froggy Style. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people working as a private investigator. Visit: www.jakazimer.com for more information.