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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cold Shot

By Joe Clifford
357 KB; 218 pages
ISBN: 0615782957
( Battered Suitcase Press, April 5, 2013)
(e-Book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

So, you're looking for a light summer read, something cheerful, humorous: a crime novel, maybe, with a twisted plot, a grand caper, a huge score and interesting characters. A book that ends with the perps, free and clear, making off to the Balearic Islands with their ill-gotten swag.

You want interesting characters, car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs featuring automatic weapons, and bodies stacked up like cordwood. The equivalent, in fact, of those popcorn matinees crowded with teens on any Saturday between June and September.

If that's what you're looking for, bunkie, all I can tell you is, stay the fuck away from Junkie Love, Joe Clifford's semi-autobiographical novel about his strung-out years in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Yeah, there's crime in the book. But it's the kind of sordid chickenshit that junkies do to scrape together enough cash for a fix: dumpster diving for something saleable, kiting checks on non-existent bank accounts, identity theft, petty rip-offs from hardware stores and from other dope fiends' stashes of broken tape decks, dirty underwear and obsolete black and white television sets.

And the plot is twisted, in large part because the star of the show really had no idea what he was doing. His concerns were limited to getting loaded and screwing the junkie chicks who drifted through his world like dying fish in a turgid stream.

But the perps never escape, not to the Balearics or anyplace else someone would actually want to be. The closest they ever come is stints in rehab, or the medical lockup at the county hospital, usually not from any desire to get clean but because they have run out of money for drugs and are too sick and tired to hustle more.

Admittedly, the characters in this book are interesting. They come by it honestly: most are howling-dog crazy, driven insane by the drugs they use or the demons that made them addicts in the first place.

There's no car chases -- just a seemingly endless series of yo-yo trips from one end of the country to the other in a desperate effort to outrun addiction. The fist fights are stumble-bum maulings like the drunken brawls between alcoholics in an alley outside a beer joint. And there are no shoot-outs -- just shoot ups.

Squarely in the center of the action is Clifford, literally the star of his own screenplay. Figuratively, too, when it comes to that.

Readers of Pulp Hack Confessions should be familiar with Joe by now: he and his lovely wife produce Lip Service West: True Stories, a series of readings by East Bay authors. He is one of the editors of Out of the Gutter Online , an electronic magazine that specializes in pulp fiction, and Gutter Books, a small book publishing house. He has written two other novels (one of which, Lamentation, is due out in October and was previewed here on July 19), and is the author of a host of short stories published in Thuglit, and Pulp Ink 2

Joe Clifford: I'm becoming convinced he doesn't know
how to write a bad sentence, let alone a bad book.

Junkie Love is a mildly fictionalized gloss on Clifford's life as a user of a pharmacopeia of substances forbidden by local, state and federal law.

By his account, practically the only thing you find in a drug store that he didn't shoot during this period is Preparation H. Frankly, that surprises me: I guess it's too hard to heat the stuff up in a tablespoon and load it into a syringe.

It's hard telling how much of the book is an accurate depiction of Clifford's life in the lower circle of junkie hell and how much is fantasy. He admits he isn't certain himself. As he puts it in his foreword:

Over the years, I've published several excerpts in literary magazines, journals, e-zines and quarterlies, giving readings in bookstores, at festivals and fairs, on NPR. People seem to like it. But the question is always the same: Is this story true?

And the answer is . . .I don't know.

I don't either, but it seems pretty damned true-to-life to me.

Perhaps Junkie Love substitutes artistic truth for the factual variety. God knows Clifford is blunt enough about the years he spent hustling and committing petty crimes to get his next fix that it is impossible to dismiss the book as a vanity job. 

There is little to admire about Clifford as he lies, steals and cheats his way through life, even to the point of swiping OxyContin from his dying mother.

There is little to admire as he has casual and not so casual sex with drug-addled women who seem to think only about dope and shooting gallery rutting -- except when they are obsessing about the government agents, devil worshippers and Masons they are convinced have them under 24-hour-a-day surveillance.

"In rehab, I am a rock star," he says in one passage. "A guy like me only needs two things to pick up girls on the inside: candy and cigarettes. Junkie girls going through withdrawal crave the sugar and there isn't much to do in between groups on proper nutrition, emotional triggers and relapse prevention except smoke."

In segments like this, the book reads like a how-to manual for emotional judo, complete with instructions to "use manipulation and take a person's inherent goodness and generosity and use it against him to get what you wanted."

Clifford makes it clear that he thought what was driving him into this lurid existence was his desire to emulate writers, musicians and artists he had read about, turning his vicarious understanding of how their genius was shaped by drugs and alcohol into first-hand experience.

[After all, DeQuincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Coleridge: all of those guys were dopers, right? And if he hadn't been a lifelong heroin addict who killed his wife, William S. Burroughs would hardly have had anything to write about.]

In a section describing the rock musicians he hung with on Belvedere Street in his early days in San Francisco, Clifford even invokes Hemingway:

When Hemingway was living as an expatriate in Paris in the '20s, he wrote how lucky he was to be in a city teeming with such raw artistic possibility. That's how I felt about San Francisco and the Belvedere Boys -- like something important was going to happen. This was our moveable feast.

But by the time he enrolls in his final rehab program, he confronts the fact that his search for an artistic breakthrough by means of drugs was just a sham:

I've told myself that I live for art and beauty, that I've thwarted the conventional for the sake of higher principles and have endured years of torment with the belief that a big payoff would justify the misery. It is clear to me now that no such moment is coming. I am full of shit.

His real breakthrough comes when he cleans himself up with this final rehab stay. Toward its end, he has a conversation with his therapist, Dr. Stevens, in which it is clear to both men that he has turned the corner and is ready to move on.

"I guess it's time you get out of here, anyway," Dr. Stevens says. "They're [the rehab facility] running out of gold stars."

"Funny guy."

"You know, when you first came in, I wasn't sure you'd make it through the night."

I wait. "Neither was I."

Junkie Love is not exactly an amusement park ride, full of thrills, spills and excitement. Despite this, it's a hell of a book -- and a hell of an accomplishment.

Yeah, it's depressing; but it also has passages that are laugh out loud funny, while others will make you cringe at what Clifford went through.

And it is beautifully put together; I am becoming convinced that Clifford doesn't know how to write a bad sentence, let alone a bad paragraph, story or book.

People who have no idea what addiction is about could use this book to get some useful knowledge. Those who know -- or who think they do -- should read it anyway; particularly if they've ever rolled their eyes smugly at a tweaker's paranoiac speed rap, or sneered at a junkie, needle still sticking out of his arm, nodding off in some Tenderloin alley.

Though he would probably laugh bitterly at the notion, it seems to me that Joe Clifford got a lot from the time he spent in junkie hell.

Best of all, he got out alive.

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