I seem to have crossed paths with a goodly number of addicts in my life, which sometimes make me wonder if there are more of them than I realize or if I simply attract addicts. I don’t know the statistics of what percentage of people in society are addicts… but in a crowd, I can find the alcoholic, pothead, acid fiend, meth maniac, and their like in any number of recreational pharmaceuticals. Maybe it has to do with all that Buddha compassion stuff – I empathize with their suffering, rather than sneer in disgust.
So, it is with my supra-layman’s knowledge of addiction that I came to hear punk poet, musician, and heroin junkie Tony O’Neill’s afternoon reading at Marianopolis college. O’Neill drew upon an assorted collection of poems and short stories, including an unpublished work. I might be mistaken when I call them autobiographical, and I fear falling into that trap of confusing the man with the writing, but the stories show close familiarity of the life of a junkie and a junkie’s obsession with drugs. With what little I know of O’Neill, these are works about his life, or at least, about some of his experiences with drugs. His writings are intimate and visceral, recounting an endless series of days living below the surface in which getting high and hopefully higher is the alpha and omega of existence.
Reading poems in print is very different from reading them aloud. The poems are wonderful heard aloud. However, as the reading marched on past the hour mark, I found it tedious that every poem focused on alcohol and drugs, save for one or two that mentioned alcoholism and drugs. Every poem. After awhile, it was as though he were telling the same story but with an anagram of drugs and characters. Then, perhaps, I did what no critic should really do – I began to contemplate how the man and art were the same, and drew the conclusion that his addiction to drugs was now an addiction to writing about drugs. Truly, he was still an addict of sorts, and this left me feeling like an uncomfortable voyeur, looking into the life of a person with malfunctional machinery. At this point, whatever amused me about his writing ceased and I was unable to focus on the man as artist, but instead saw him as a man telling his own Addict’s Tale. And, quite simply, I am never entertained by the reality of the junkie’s existence and am not comfortable laughing at the absurdity and dehumanized pathos of junkie situations.
He is a fine writer – an excellent writer. He is able to convey his frailty and his monstrosity with immediacy. He hits notes of incredible beauty and poignancy in his writing. His melanged accent and slightly nervous demeanor help endear him to the audience. Yet, my opinion remains quite staunch; his junkie story was simply a more literate version of the EveryAddict’s tale, the same assemblage of miseries I have heard from others: the pawning of everything in the house for drugs, the cradle of the cement sidewalk, meaningless sexual experiences and marriages while high. In fact, I was waiting for my favourite EveryAddict Tale motif – the way the first white light of day breaking the sky is a time of great grief and fear, the end of the cover of darkness.
What O’Neill does is not new. As a voracious reader of addict tales, I thought of his similarities with the Jay MacInerneys and Bret Easton Ellises, the Hunter S. Thompsons and Irvine Welshes, and even more recent Ellen Hopkinses. Addict tales are nothing new and every generation has its share of bards who wax poetic about the ugliness and wildness of the raw life. But, with his talent, O’Neill would do far more to distinguish himself by launching himself into territory beyond the gutter and the crack hotel.