by Tony O’Neill
Harper Perennial, 2008; 256 pp; $14.95
Down and Out on Murder Mile is a superb piece of work. The novel plots the drug misadventures of its unnamed narrator from Los Angeles to London. With junkie wife Susan in tow, the narrator retreats to his native country for a new start, or, more accurately, an escape, after hitting rock bottom in L.A. when a police car runs him down on Christmas Eve while he’s out trawling for crack.
But London does not save the couple. Not surprisingly, drugs are easy to score in the British capital. The UK also offers the pair free access to methadone clinics via the National Health Service as a way to wean themselves from smack. But are they really interested in kicking? Meanwhile, Susan and her husband are chased from squalid flat to squalid flat, eventually landing in East London’s Upper Clapton Road, an area dubbed “Murder Mile” due to the high body count from a raging drug war. It’s not the sort of place to get clean. The narrator tries his hand at a few dubious jobs (magazine advertising hack; porn shop clerk) before gathering a bit of momentum back in the music biz, where, years earlier, he got his start as a fairly successful musician.
But hold on—don’t those rock-n-roll types dabble in drugs now and again, you ask? Right—O’Neill’s protagonist steps from one hell into another. Again, it suggests he is not really that interested in getting off dope. Redemption does creep into the bleak narrative when a new woman (Vanessa) comes along and gives the narrator hope. But when you’re a hardcore junkie, and a professed lover of the high drugs bring, you don’t just walk away from it all because of a pretty face.
It’s here O’Neill shows his brilliance—about seventy-five per cent of the way into the novel, he could have offered his narrator a sickly saccharine out where he and Vanessa live happily ever after. But that ain’t reality, my friend, especially for a junkie, and O’Neill knows it.
So instead of a tidy, happy, mainstream ending—O’Neill gives readers a minor epiphany at best, as his narrator rights himself a little but he’s still a long way from going straight. The demons that have tormented him from page one of Down and Out on Murder Mile still nip at his heels when the book concludes.
O’Neill delivers this novel with energy, pace and blistering courage, pressing the reader’s face right into the narrator’s mire of druggie darkness. The novel is also non-judgemental. O’Neill shows readers the honest goods of a junkie’s life and makes no apologies for it. We are spared high-horse moralizing about drug use. Readers see the despair and must make up their own minds about the damaged lives O’Neill portrays. But with the damage comes some serious insider info and bias about the beauty of being high:
On the train I think that maybe right here, right now, I am the most beautiful man alive, because everyone is beautiful when they are high: I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty—a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin – it is a war against the simple human aspiration of complete contentment, and the thought makes me sad—that we are waging such a pointless and spiteful war against the noblest part of our own nature.
This passage—and there are more like it—reveals O’Neill’s respect for his readers. He shows readers what being on junk is like. He offers his views on the allure of smack and other drugs while clearly portraying the anguish of addiction and the blinding madness of the all-consuming lifestyle, but he does not preach about getting clean. In this era, when so many false prophets insist on telling others how to lead their lives, it is refreshing to come across a novelist who just lays it down cold and hard, letting the reader decide what he or she thinks.
Adding to the book’s strength is its artfulness, as the prose is very fluid. And there is humour throughout, bolstering the novel’s humanity. For example, when the protagonist is kept away from his pharmacy and his methadone because the cops have blocked off the street, he telephones the pharmacy, begging to get through and is put on hold. O’Neill describes it this way:
They placed me on hold. I found myself listening to Musak momentarily. Kenny G plays the hits of Celine Dion. I wondered if that would be playing when I die. The phone box stank of stale döner kebabs and vomit.
The narrator is jonesing here, yet he still manages to think about dying while being forced to listen to the world’s worst music. I had to laugh.
Tony O’Neill has delivered a powerful novel, more forceful even than his first landmark novel, Digging the Vein, from 2006. Murder Mile brims with vigour, violence, black humour and bleak humanity—readers will love its honesty and directness above all else.Back to top