I have been wanting to write a review of Joe Clifford’s JUNKIE LOVE for months. I can hear you already (I’m a bit of a mind reader), “What’s so hard about writing a book review? Just write the damn thing.” Well, it’s complicated. Joe was a guest on the podcast I do (Books and Booze for the uninitiated), and he was a blast to have on as a guest. I hadn’t read the book before he came on the show for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly important–What IS important, is that as soon as the show was over, I bought the book and started reading.
Sometime later, I had an opportunity to attend Noir at the Bar, L.A. where Joe would be reading, and as happens when writers get together, he asked what I thought of the book, or maybe, he asked if I had finished it. I said, “I had a really hard time reading it. I had to take a lot of breaks, had to put it down for a period here and there, but I finished it, and I’m really glad I did.”
Many people might think that was an asshole thing to say, or they may read that and think “Damn, that book must be a fucking gut punch”, the second group is absolutely correct, and now we’re getting to the heart of why I had such a hard time writing a review. If I want to tell you how the book affected me, why it was so great, I have to talk about things I don’t particularly like to talk about.
I’m the child of an addict.
That’s a weighty statement because people bring a lot of assumptions to the table when you say it. It isn’t nearly as interesting or depressing as it sounds. I had two wonderful parents that worked hard to give me opportunities and help me succeed, and then, a half hour away, I had my dad. He used just about every substance you can imagine, and it would be a big fat lie to say it didn’t have any effect on me, it definitely did. It’s just not some Lifetime Movie kind of story where I had to overcome growing up in the same house as a poly drug user—because I didn’t.
Down to the book. It says it’s a novel right on the cover, but Joe told us on the show that these are things that happened. The way they are woven together isn’t necessarily chronological, but the book is a representation of his real life battle with addiction. He doesn’t pull any punches or attempt to make himself look good. I remember the first time I had to put the book down—he was discussing how speed affects the user. I remembered my father’s funeral, a large percentage of the people who spoke talked about how handy he was, how he loved to take things apart and put them back together again. Joe writes that this is a symptom of speed use. I think… “chicken or egg? Is the thing people remembered fondly about my dad caused by the drug that killed him? Do I know my father at all? Did anyone?”
Tougher, are the incredibly real moments described in JUNKIE LOVE—the crazy relationships between Joe and his friends, the up and downs with the insane women he loved and used with. Puzzle pieces fell into place for me and it was a lot like reading my dad’s story—only now I had this inside look that never occurred to me as I watched him self destruct and surround himself with the kind of people who would thank my grandmother for a hot meal and roof over their head by stealing her jewelry.
I have a lot of sympathy for the struggles of addiction, but I held very little sympathy for my own father. Being in the middle of it, as I often was, I couldn’t separate the actions of an addict from the father that loved me. He never went after getting clean, and he died as a result of his drug use, so I never really got the opportunity to see the difference. The Dad-with-a-capital-D character in my story only exists in memories of childhood before the drugs and alcohol took him over completely. Through Joe’s prose and honesty, I had this strange opportunity to go through the looking glass and really see the human side of the story.
And… you know. I’ve avoided talking to Joe too much about the book. I always feel like there is a fine line when you have social access to an author between being supportive of their work and being an asshole who treats their friendliness as an open invitation to turn every conversation into a book club appearance. There is that other reason too, though. It’s rare that a book becomes so personal for me. I can only think of one or two others off the top of my head, and in both cases they were complete works of fiction. I hesitate to co-opt Joe’s story and make it into something that belongs to me—while acknowledging that a good book does that to the reader. This book definitely did that to me. In addition to being well written, honest, and good reading—it was a window for me into a world I had always been on the outside of. Damn close to it, ear against the wall. But never inside. I never knew these things about the people in my life that struggled with addiction in a real way. I knew it intellectually; I knew it on paper, so to speak. I knew the clinical studies and the opinions of Dr. fucking Drew, but I didn’t ever know it as a part of me, as a part of who I am and who my father was as a human being.
Okay, there’s a third reason, too. As a writer myself, I play with emotion all the time. I work hard to pull emotion off the page and set it on the reader, and I genuinely hope I do a good job. A lot of authors I’ve had the pleasure of reading while doing Books and Booze do this fantastically, but every time I want to say something to Joe about how this book opened me up and smashed me to pieces, I get a little lump in my throat. I like to think of myself as something of a badass. I’ve been a punk rocker, a US Marine, and I’ve been through some shit. I don’t like to get all mopey and soft in public. I like to pretend that sad movies don’t make me cry and that I’ve got ALL my shit under control. I like to think that I’ve processed all the feelings I had about my father’s death and the contradictory emotions that came with it—relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore, a crushing sadness that he never even tried to get clean, the realization that I had killed and mourned the Dad-with-a-capital-D character in my story a decade before the body of my father died, the might have beens and maybes, the wishing for a different end to his story.
Well, I guess I haven’t and I guess maybe I never will. JUNKIE LOVE is about a lot of things. It’s about addiction and rehab, of course. It’s about love, in this crazy-manic sort of way that seems so intense and beautiful just under the self-destructive anti-romantic surface. It’s about redemption and it does a kid like me good to see that its possible and it happens. It’s about dealing with shit that people really don’t want to deal with. So the make-believe badass in my brain had to take a step back.
Because there is this part of the book… it just tore the emotion right out of me. I was sitting at one of those mall play areas, letting my kid run off some energy, and reading JUNKIE LOVE, and then BAM! Waterworks.
For fuck’s sake.
I just slipped my e-reader back into my purse and did some breathing exercises, hoping no one had noticed. It was so simple, so honest, and so fucking brutal that I couldn’t deal with it. It stripped me bare. The sentence, out of context in an effort to show you how simple it was, is as follows:
“She was just a girl who wanted to be taken out to dinner.”
Goddamn. I get goose bumps and complicated feelings just thinking about it. It’s stayed with me all these months, as a lump in my throat when I try to tell people why it’s amazing, as the thing I didn’t say when I got to hang out with Joe, as this sentence that captures how beautiful and terrible everything about life is so quickly, so deftly, that it literally takes your breath away. I could have been punched in the solar plexus and had a less visceral reaction.
So there you have it. 5/5 stars. A book that really changed me. I’ll cheerlead this thing ‘til the day it’s on the NYT Best Seller’s list and then I’ll tell everyone “I told you so!”
For Joe’s interview on Books and Booze, click here.