“THE CITY WAS CRYING.” — A Review of Sick City by Tony O’Neill

I’ve lived a tame life free from hard drugs. I’d have trouble identifying what crack in its natural form even looks like. A rock, I suppose.

Because of my tame (okay, “boring”) life, I’ve had an aversion to reading what I think of as “drug lit.” One of my favorite books, Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries frames a story about truthfulness and family around his drug use, but I didn’t find the drug itself to be of any great consequence to the story being told. If it were, I may have grown irritted or confused by it. Irritated because I have trouble following wounded, drug-abusing protagonists who handle their lives so drastically differently from myself, whose moral compasses point north where mine points southward. This explains why I’ve never really gotten into the Beats. The ethical or social disconnect between I, the reader, and the hard drug-using characters causes a friction that usually gets in the way of my enjoyment of a novel or drug-centric movie (e.g. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). But of course, that disconnect is a great — essential even — facet of the reading life.

Approaching Tony O’Neill’s Sick City, I was wary that his book’s central “two desperate dope fiends” wouldn’t, over the course of the 360+ page novel, inspire much empathy from me. Without empathetic characters, reading can feel very dry and clinical and not at all nourishing in the way great books are. I like novels that address the complications of the human experience and the process of decision-making and, naive as it may sound, I tend to think of drug abuse as a simple way of addressing a problem, of getting out of yourself and away from your earthly concerns. (Of course, long-term hard drug abuse only creates more problems, and I find that complication very interesting.) The narco-response impulse just doesn’t make enough logistical or rational sense (to me) for me to look at one of O’Neill’s characters and even consider what it’d be like if that’s how I was. From my vantage point, the cons always far outweigh the pros.

Typically “drug lit” books all sound the same to me, each suggesting some degree of incredible pleasure/pain and something like redemption. (Which is different from most literary books, how?) Much of what irks me about “drug lit” books may be present in Sick City, but O’Neill’s story was compelling enough, and rich enough, to make me brush aside my issues of personal taste and, by the book’s end, reconsider my — mostly unfounded — generalized criticisms altogether.

While it did take me a while to get wrapped up in O’Neill’s LA-set tale, I eventually became very concerned for his characters, their attempts at rehabilitation, their failure to recover, and their never-ending pursuit for happiness, i.e., drugs and money. There’s a scene of incredible suspense at the end of PART ONE, around page 200, that was painted so vividly and perfectly that I had no problem investing in wherever the story would go from then on. In PART TWO, the stakes were slowly raised and the language O’Neill used seemed to become more and more lyrical*. O’Neill’s themes, too, became more interesting to me as I realized their universality: addiction, recovery, greed, dependence, independence, free will, and the difficulties of existing in a world that treats you indifferently or disapprovingly.

The main story charts the lives of two junkies, Jeffery and Randal, as they meet formally in rehab, fall not-so-miserably back into hard drugs, and look into selling a legendary sex tape, acquired by a former cop boyfriend of Jeffery’s at the crime scene of Sharon Tate’s murder, featuring Tate, Mama Cass, Steve McQueen, and Yul Brenner. Yes. Every time that the tape was mentioned in the book, a smile swept across my face. That the tape was of such importance to the plot was just great.

There are two large sub-plots, one very successful and unnerving and the other a bit of a dud of little importance to the narrative. The dud-plot revolves around Dr. Mike, essentially a fascimile of celebrity-specialist Dr. Drew. Dr. Mike’s sections in Sick City felt a little cheap and tacked on, but did an OK job of highlighting the ridiculousness of our culture’s obsession with pre-fabricated reality programs like Celebrity Rehab. The other subplot involves one of the craziest villains I’ve read in quite some time. His name’s Pat, and he’s like a more sadistic version of Kurt Russell’s character in Death Proof. (I’ll lazily note here that Sick City would be prime material for Tarantino to adapt; it’s told non-linearly and features a healthy mix of noir and pulp-y elements.)

In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, O’Neill said:

I find addicts as fascinating as the next person, I guess because I can relate to them, and I don’t find their way of life any less worthwhile than the life I lead, really. I suppose that’s the difference in how someone like me views [Intervention and Celebrity Rehab] and how the rest of America does. I dislike how the addicts are contextualised, how they are portrayed as being sick, mentally ill, helpless – all of that bothers me.

Sick City does a good job of making you wonder if the addict’s way of life is any less worthwhile than your own. This aspect of the book made me think that there’s much more to be taken from a piece of drug fiction than I’d previously thought. O’Neill writes, as I’m sure Bukowski and Kerouac and Denis Johnson wrote/write, simply of people living extremely. Drug addicts (who can act, really, as metaphor for addicts of anything, which, to some extent, most of us should admit to being) know the amazing relief of using their drugs and the insufferable pain of having those drugs taken away. As someone who lives merely ordinarily, there’s a lot to learn from the type of people who live at the twin poles of hedonism and agony. Perhaps more than from the writers I typically read: white, middle-class, “ordinary,” Jewish, with a penchant for characters who feel an existential coldness.

Sick City is like a crime novel without justice in the traditional, legislative sense of the word. There are physical repercussions for poor decision-making and characters suffer the sometimes fatal consequences of falling too deeply into a life of addiction and, as its referred to by one of the rehab center’s workers, “self-will run riot.” But O’Neill’s addicts are not beyond hope. The novel kind of questions “hope.” “Hope” exists and “recovery” is possible when you seriously consider them as potential realities, but O’Neill’s characters don’t always do that. Jeffery and Randal are often very complacent in their drug use; they feel in many ways that getting high is their raison d’être, their only way to be. That ambivalence read like one of the most authentic parts (of which there are many) in this wild ride of a novel.

*“Outside a siren wailed and then faded away into night. It sounded like the city was crying” (288).
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