Monday, August 12, 2013

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, a memoir by Michael W. Clune

 (reposted from the main page of this online reading journal, 2013: The Year in Books )

Hazelden, 2013
260 pp

my copy from the publisher -- thank you! 

At the time the author wrote this book, he'd been free from his heroin addiction for ten years. White Out is his story of his addiction and then how he came to kick it.    I won't got into great detail about what he wrote per se, because this is a book that actually has to be experienced --  it reads like he sat down at his computer and just let everything pour out of himself.

While a grad student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore,  starting at age 21, Michael Clune lived the life of a heroin addict for years, until he got to a point where on a visit to his parents in Chicago he was picked up by the police, thrown in jail and then given a choice of prison or recovery.  In between those two times, his experiences and his feelings often flow here in stream-of-consciousness-like prose, where he also reflects on memory, addiction, and time.  The book gets into his introduction to heroin, his addiction (and the denial that he's an addict) and his ongoing relationships with his demons. In fact, other than the central metaphor of "white," one of the themes that runs consistently through this narrative,  he spends a lot of this book talking about "the first time."  As he tells his readers, the first time is "dope's magic secret."

"Then I see a white-topped vial. Wow. I stare at it. It's the first time I've ever seen it. I know I've seen it ten thousand times before. I know it only leads to bad things. I know I've had it and touched it and used it and shaken the last particles of white from the thin deep bottom one thousand times. But there it is. And it's the first time I've ever seen it."
“It might seem like I’m kind of obsessed by the first time I did dope. No shit. If you’re writing a book about this, and you don’t use at least this much space writing about the first time, you’re not being honest.”
Well, honest is what you get in this narrative, written in a style that can often come across as repetitive, but one which tries to convey what it was like for the author during the addiction years. His writing style seems to mirror his inner unraveling, but it makes sense and coheres in a bizarre, offbeat sort of way.  Through it all he reminds his readers that the heroin  is still "right over there" which, if you think about it, is pretty frightening. 

I liked this book.  I'll probably never really gut-level understand what Mr. Clune went through, and for someone like myself who picks up a personal account like this, I don't think it's fair to say that his experience can be entirely comprehended within the scope of a couple of hundred pages.  That's not a negative -- this is his unique story, a way for him to try to relate his unique experience which was pretty frightening,  even considering the positive outcome.  But I think this book is probably best suited for readers who are close to someone who is an addict and who may want to try to glean some insight from Mr. Clune's experiences. It's definitely an account I'd turn to in that situation.

my thanks to TLC book tours