Narrator: Xe Sands
Published by Iambik Audio on 3/29/12
An unflinching look at the life of a junkie whose addiction is spiraling out of control and isolating her from family and friends, the suggestion of this story as literary memoir thins the protective veil of ‘fiction’ and leaves the listener with front row seats to a train wreck in progress. Not an easy book to listen to but incredibly thought provoking and delivered with care by a narrator who sounds willing to take your hand and walk you through the dissolution of a life.
Maxella “Max” Gordon is a drug user whose addiction has driven her parents to cut off any type of support and practically all communication with her. After a brief flirtation with staying clean, she soon succumbs to her heroin habit and is back to chasing happiness at the end of a needle, crack pipe, or pill. As an actress, the toll drugs have taken on her body has limited her to a commercial shoot for contact lenses since her eyes are the only part of her body, or so she thinks, not affected by her drug use. A disastrous encounter with her landlord and sometimes dealer puts her square in the sights of his boss and supplier Carlotta and Carlotta’s son Albert. As Max is coerced into dealing, the fragile relationship she has with her parents (long divorced but still united in their love for their daughter) is in danger of completely disintegrating but even more at risk is Max’s life.
It’s difficult to use the word ‘like’ with a book that delivers such a raw glimpse into the life of a junkie but as hard as this was to listen to with its blunt and very physical descriptions of drug use, the consequences for the body of the user, and the ruin it made of Max’s life and family, it was worth the effort. I often enjoy fiction that takes me on a virtual trip to a different country or culture or world and in a way, this book did exactly that even though the setting was California. The world of a hard-core drug addict is outside my realm of experience but the fact that the character of Max in this audiobook was loosely based on the author’s personal experiences had the effect of removing the protective layer that fiction often draws between reader and text and I felt like a helpless and appalled bystander watching a car crash. I can’t say I want to take a return trip to that unflinchingly described world but it’s a visit that I won’t easily shake from memory.
There are some complex dynamics at play in Max’s life. The break in her relationship with her parents that her drug use causes was achingly well written. As she experiences the physical effects on her heart of chasing heroin with cocaine, Max muses that “The heart’s a funny thing…there’s a lot of pressure on it. It never gets to rest.” That’s an apt metaphor for the burden her parents suffer under: wanting to help her and being unable to cut her off completely, even though they commit to a ‘no contact’ policy because continuing to enable her could end up causing her death.
There’s a somewhat dizzying vignette quality to this story that I’m not sure was intentional although it aptly implies the confusion of Max’s drug use and the snapshot moments of clarity she seems to experience. There’s a hint of the surreal that runs through the book as a porcelain angel figurine that Max steals from the Rite Aid speaks to her with the apparent intent of saving her as she stumbles around seeking her next high. That was actually far less of a surrealistic aspect for me than the the scenes of Max shooting up. While I felt that blossoming or opening was an overused description for how Max experienced the first hit, those scenes did engender a deep sense of unease. This was primarily due to the sharp contrast in how happy using initially makes Max feel, the description of the rush she gets, and the sometimes lyrical language used to describe it which contrasted starkly with the graphic descriptions of the physical damage Max was doing (and had already done) to her body and how her personal hygiene became a secondary consideration. Also in contrast to my expectations were the actions of Carlotta, the dealer. Although she coerced Max into dealing for her, she displays moments of maternal (or perhaps just manipulative) care and in one scene is preparing first communion bibles while Max and Albert are prepping baggies in another room.
In many of Max’s interactions with the surrounding characters there is a lack of a clear right or wrong line. While it’s always obvious that Max is responsible for her own actions it’s also plain that she is in no way deserving of some of the things that happen to her. She is both a sympathetic and frustrating character as the story reveals her weaknesses and inability to kick her habit while also letting the listener see the essential core of good that resides in her and her wish that she could change. Although I was mildly frustrated by an incomplete understanding of what started Max down the road she’s on and found the addition of Max’s recollections of her now absent lover Ernest to be superfluous, I admire the author’s ability to maintain a balance between the aspects of right/wrong, good/evil, victim/villain in all the characters. The end of the book, much like life, doesn’t provide any easy answers but I was satisfied with being able to draw my own conclusions.
The narration of this audiobook struck the right tone to carry me through a difficult listen. Xe Sands gives the narrative a gentle delivery that blends fatalistic with matter-of-fact. The inflection and emphasis of the narration is organic and the narrative is delivered with a subtlety that made the overall impact of the story more poignant considering the blunt descriptions of drug use and the unflinching picture of the physical and emotional damage to users. While some of the vocal cues such as the sudden relaxation in Max’s voice after she shoots up and the increased tension in her voice when she’s starting withdrawal added to the immersive nature of the audio, I was occasionally drawn out by the tendency of Carlotta’s accent to fade in and out. Dialogue is spot-on, flows naturally, and is consistent with the construction of the characters and their emotional states. This was very good narration that enhanced the text.