While Tony O’Neill’s previous two novels, Digging the Vein (2006) and Down and Out on Murder Mile (2008) were mostly autobiographical chronicles of drug craving, his first fully fictional book, Sick City (2010), doesn’t fall far from the addict tree.
A tale of two desperate junkies trying to unload a lost sex tape featuring Sharon Tate, Mama Cass and a hot-bed of other 1960s celebrities, the novel rampages through the lives of its various lowlife characters with matter-of-fact descriptions of sex, violence and consumption that recall William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper.
The German edition of Sick City is out now and O’Neill will be in Berlin on Sep 22 for a reading (in English) at Fürst & Iven. We spoke to him about the source of the madness and the state of drugs and recovery in America.
This book is fictional, right? So where do your protagonists come from?
I kinda based a lot of Randal's mannerisms and his look on a friend of mine out in L.A. who died a few years ago, but both of them have huge chunks of me in them. I knew I wanted to write something with lead characters that were in a way very amoral – wild, unrepentant druggy guys. The trick was to get people who were doing really crazy stuff but, weirdly, they're the two most moral people in the book.
The only “respectable” character, Dr. Mike, ends up being completely amoral.
There's always that thing in fiction where junkies are always the weak characters or the morally bankrupt characters. I have an intense dislike for [American recovery television guru] Doctor Drew. His whole take on addiction is so patently wrong and phony that I find myself just watching him so I can get angry about it.
But I’ve met plenty of fine and upstanding dope fiends in my day.
Do you consider yourself one?
Absolutely. I treated being a junkie like being an Olympic sport; I wanted to be the best junkie I could be. I worked at it every day and I worked very, very hard.
To do that, you have to deal with people like Pat, the most terrifying character in the book.
There was this particular freak I used to know from San Francisco and he hooked me up with meth and it was one of those long weekends, like four or five days without sleep and I ended up in somebody’s closet getting a tattoo at one point. There was this long nocturnal hunt for drugs with a meth dealer who was basically the prototype for Pat because he was one of these guys who seemed like he had a crazy switch. Once I was in the car driving around with him and as he talked I realized more and more that this guy was an absolute psychopath and I spent something like four hours trying to extricate myself from the situation without setting him off.
The other stuff was stuff I plucked from my imagination. The real Pat for example wasn't obsessed with Phil Collins. I wanted to make this guy obsessed with Phil Collins just because I think Phil Collins' music is the epitome of the worst crap ever from the 1980s.
Who knows, Pat may read this book one day.
[Laughs] The one good thing is that a lot of guys I hung out with didn't seem like they were big readers. I remember in Down and Out in Murder Mile telling this story about robbing some kid I was hanging out with, some kid whose uncle was in a gang and this guy crashed at my house and while he was sleeping in the next room, I stole $700 worth of crack and smoked it all. I had to abandon my apartment because I knew if he woke up he'd kill me. I wrote about that, admitting in print that I ripped off a huge Mexican street gang. But so far, so good, touch wood. If I ever go missing quickly you might know what happened.
So is writing less dangerous than being a junkie?
Yeah, more fun too.
That's kinda surprising.
Yeah, well I gotta admit, I did enjoy the lifestyle. That was the hardest part to give up – more than the drugs. It was all the people you knew, and it's like I say, I don't think I could have done it so long if I hadn't, on some level, really gotten off on the whole lifestyle.
Your protagonists fuck everything up in the end. Do you find failure or desperation sexy?
I feel that keeps it interesting. To me it was the only logical way you could end it. If you give a junkie a million dollars, what's he going to do with it? The interesting thing for them is to constantly have their eye on this unobtainable prize. But it [also] gave me an excuse to write another one.
Stopping heroin addiction may be tough, but it is very doable, since many heroin abusers have already managed to beat this deadly habit in the past.
The book shows a lot of contempt for the “recovery industry”.
If you listen to people like Doctor Drew you can get addicted to smoking weed or having sex or anything. It's just a ridiculous idea to me. The very idea that someone would go to drug treatment because they smoked pot is laughable. I'm very much an anti-prohibitionist; I think everything should be legalized across the board. You should just legalize the lot, tax it and regulate it.
But some are willing victims of that industry as well.
Whenever someone is caught doing something wrong, like a politician who is caught sending naked pictures of himself over the internet, the first thing they do now is go to rehab. These people are going to rehab because they're having extramarital affairs. I mean, just own up to it. In America you say, “Aww, I have a problem but I've gone to rehab now.” And people say, “Aww, okay then,” like it's forgiven, like you've confessed your sins in the old days.
But you’re clean now…
I think I'm living proof that you can come back from a serious almost decade-long bout of heroin. I was injecting heroin, I was injecting cocaine, I was on methadone and I still found my way back to normality. I still drink and I still do other things. I don't use needles and I stay away from hard drugs and that's a choice. I tried to do the AA thing and you have a drink and you think: “I've relapsed now, so I might as well go full out.” For me it’s a completely ignorant way to think about the problem and more dangerous.
But what about people who can’t simply walk away from their addictions?
The recovery industry is this multi-million dollar thing that is marketing these expensive cures which have very low success rates. I've got plenty of friends and they go to AA and feel that’s how they have to be. They can't do anything because it's too much of a temptation and they've made peace with that and they're quite happy. The amount of people who can do it the way I have and the amount of people who do it the other way are relatively similar if you look at the numbers.
Are you ever going to come to a point where you’re not writing about drugs?
I'm sure. I've written things that aren't. For now it's just a world that I'm really fascinated by and there's so much you can do with it. Evelyn Waugh never stopped writing about British people or P.G. Wodehouse never stopped writing about the British upper classes and James Joyce never stopped writing about the Irish working classes and for me the drug world is a really big canvas you can tell all kinds of stories with. Who knows?
If the war on drugs weren’t around, would the world really be different?
I'd be out of business. A lot of people would be out of business.