The Drugs Do Work

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Strange, surreal and occasionally macabre, the new short-fiction anthology The Speed Chronicles offers a primer on a class of illicit substances—and a category of human experience—at once painful and joyous.

Mind-altering chemicals and cultural production have long had a symbiotic, if sometimes troubled, relationship. But a specific subset of substances has a particularly notorious reputation—one associated more frequently with destruction than creativity: methamphetamine and related stimulants. The frequent target of fear-based abstinence campaigns, meth is more commonly fodder for cautionary personal memoirs than literary fiction.

The Speed Chronicles, a new short-fiction anthology edited by L.A.–based writer Joseph Mattson, offers a wide-ranging suite of perspectives on what he describes as “the most American of drugs,” emblematic of some of our current cultural imperatives: “twice the productivity at half the cost, and equal opportunity for all.” The book inaugurates a new series of drug-themed fiction by indie press Akashic Books, intended to complement its successful set of more than 60 locale-based noir anthologies. This collection’s contributors employ varying stylistic, tonal and thematic strategies to reflect upon the identities and experiences of “speed freaks”—and the people closest to them.

This book is an eclectic attempt to draw the reader into the amped-up mindset and frequently chaotic circumstances of the users of stimulant drugs. Contributions include the mournful familial poetics of Native American author Natalie Diaz, the poised clinical detachment of Brooklyn novelist Tao Lin, and surreal noir stylings from crime writers Scott Phillips and Megan Abbott. Their characters—artists, transsexuals, housewives—variously inhabit Hollywood Hills mansions and Ozark small-town hovels, and partake of party favors ranging from the crudest “bathtub crank” to speedy prescription pharmaceuticals, such as Adderall and Provigil.

In fourteen diverse stories, The Speed Chronicles succeeds in complicating the social and literary conversation about stimulant use today. Editor Mattson eschews the usual morality play framework that attends most cultural discourse around meth: “Merely demonizing the drug would be the same crime as simply celebrating it,” he argues. The book is cleverly dedicated to “the liver,” which he defines as both “the vital organ and the daring spirit.”

Given that the consumption of most amphetamines is illegal, inevitably many of these stories engage the conventions of crime fiction. Stimulant use can undeniably be dangerous—witness the raft of broken homes and HIV infections left in the wake of some cases of meth addiction. But much of the harm comes from its lack of regulation and entanglement in underground economies. So figuring out how to acquire illicit speed and stay out of jail are primary preoccupations of many of the book’s protagonists.

But as can happen in the world of manipulated brain chemistry, events frequently take a turn for the perverse or surreal. In Mattson’s “Amp Is the First Word in Amphetamine,” two best friends are on the run from an LAPD cop nicknamed Dozer. They eventually collide with him at an upscale meth trafficker’s luxury estate, where he participates in the drug-fueled cult ritual involving the animal sacrifice of house pets. James Greer’s “The Speed of Things” is a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory narrative that begins with the mysterious appearance of a dying woman’s body but quickly transitions into conversation between the chairman of the Federal Reserve and a woman named Aunt Panne, which in turn morphs into an appreciation of Icelandic arts and letters.

Other stories take the perspectives of those who endure speed addiction in their loved—or not-so-loved—ones. Natalie Diaz writes about a frustrating attempt at standard family relations in “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs.” With a poet’s eye, she captures a woman’s observations of an emaciated sibling “conquering the night with his blue flame,” a handheld propane torch used, to heat, vaporize and inhale methamphetamine: “As he climbs each stair, his back will be something else—one shoulder blade a failed wing, the other a silver shovel.”

One of the collection’s most compelling pieces is “Pissing in Perpetuity” by Pushcart Prize-nominee Rose Bunch, about a disgruntled housewife’s war on the woman next door, a meth user who neglects her two charges, a dirty young boy and a teen with a penchant for urinating in his own backyard instead of the toilet. With humorous and vivid descriptions, Bunch describes a set of characters who are universally distrusting and unsympathetic, against a distinctive rural Arkansas backdrop of desolate fields, litter dumps and “a dried-out hillside striped with silver commercial chicken houses.”

In Jess Walter’s “Wheelbarrow Kings,” a starving Daryl and his friend Mitch face a Sisyphean task: to lug a gargantuan, antiquated television six sweltering blocks to a Spokane pawn shop in a stolen wheelbarrow. Their mission is sell the set for $200, so they can secure some quality “ice,” a refined alternative to the low-grade meth for which they usually scrounge up twelve dollars apiece. “Wheelbarrow Kings” is crafted at a grade-three reading level, without any commas and with virtually no compound sentences. But this is no portrayal of methheads as addled simpletons. Neither Daryl nor Mitch is overly articulate, but each is self-aware and perceptive. The pawn attempt fails miserably, but they manage to sell the wheelbarrow itself for a dozen dollars. Despite the brutally disappointing outcome, neither man can stop laughing—both at the bald absurdity of the situation and the sheer joy of continued existence.

The contributors to The Speed Chronicles amply demonstrate the paradox of life under the influence of chemically induced acceleration. At the best moments, the use of stimulants can celebrate the beauty and intensity of human experience. As some of these stories reveal, despite the mainstream cultural narrative of “tweakers” as amoral zombies, the persistent will to live in the face of adversity and affliction is a hallmark of many addicts’ lives. But there is sad truth, too, to the maxim that “speed kills,” in the abnormally rapid consumption of the body’s finite resources. As James Greer states in a poignant moment toward the end of “The Speed of Things,” “the most common side effect of speed is the acceleration of loss.” That this book effectively conveys both this joy and pain in equal measure is its greatest strength.

Shawn Syms (@shawnsyms) has written a short-fiction collection and recently started work on a novel. His stories have most recently appeared in Little Fiction (@Little_Fiction) and Joyland (@joylandfiction). More from this author →