The 10 Best Addiction Novels
There are numerous examples of classic fiction—from Burroughs to Selby and Thompson—that focus on addiction. Here are our top 10 contemporary favorites that are (somewhat) off the beaten path.
The Absurdist Take
The narrator in Wake Up, Sir!, a 30-something writer who hasn’t written in years, is simultaneously hapless and knowing; over it all and desperately wanting to be a part of it, whatever it is—a push-pull persona that many addicts are all too familiar with and a brilliant character crafted by Jonathan Ames (perhaps best known as the creator of HBO's Bored to Death). After accruing money through a slip-and-fall accident, Blair hires a personal valet named Jeeves to assist him with day-to-day tasks like waking up and reminding him to shave. It’s absurd and that’s the point. By elevating Blair’s self-importance to the nth degree, Ames allows for broad comedy that, at times, is laugh out loud funny, especially as Blair gets kicked out of his relatives’ house and heads to a writers’ colony populated with other ridiculous characters. Yet alcoholism is the firm anchor that grounds the book and as Jeeves only reacts to Blair’s drunken scrapes with a non-committal Very good, Sir, the reader can’t help but wonder whether Jeeves is real or just the inner voice of an alcoholic in active denial.
The Cult Classic
Although many saw the Danny Boyle mid-90s movie version of Trainspotting, fewer have read the novel it was based on (the book is a loose collection of short stories about the same six characters but the different pieces make up an overall story arc). Focusing on a group of Scottish friends grappling with their relationship with heroin, the novel is surprisingly funny, interlacing cringe-worthy vignettes of the downsides of drug use (awkward family functions, for one) with flashes of revelation and genuine despair. It’s a confusing tapestry of storytelling (parts of it are written in Scottish dialect) where Scotland serves as an essential character. By anchoring the novel so specifically in a certain place and time—mid-90s, working-class Edinburgh—it does make one question how much of addiction is a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time while showing how much society creates and perpetuates a culture where people are dependent on drugs.
The Functioning Almost-Alcoholic
Is it In the Drink or on the brink? Protagonist Claudia Steiner, created by PEN/Faulkner Award winner Kate Christensen, is the character we all know or have once been: The one ordering her fifth or sixth drink of the night while being fully aware it’s not helping anything, not really. The one who finds focusing on an hour-by-hour hangover is a not-entirely-unsuccessful way to avoid the existential angst you’re aware is looming right above you. The one who’s a little too self-aware for her own good, and who, in Claudia’s case, realizes that being 29, single, and marginally unemployed is a state that can’t last forever and will only get worse if she doesn’t do something about it. Far better written—and more embittered—than countless other novels featuring a similar trope, Christensen perfectly captures a juggling act where all the balls are about to fall.
The Voice of a Generation
Sometimes the hardest part of sobriety is reminding yourself that the days of all-night partying weren’t really that awesome. In Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney brilliantly masters the use of a second-person narrator, allowing the nameless you in the text—a man dealing with the recent death of his mother and divorce from his wife by getting lost in Manhattan nightlife—to seamlessly merge with the you in your own mind from your using years. Coke in the bathroom, intimate alliances formed over sex and substances that vaporize into anonymity when the sun rises and the gritty-eyed exhaustion that comes from walking home in the morning after being awake all night are brought to life in spare, simple prose. McInerney’s main character has the self-awareness to know all is not well but not nearly enough of what it takes to do soemthing about it—except to push forward, perhaps subconsciously realizing that the only way to find relief is to hit rock bottom.
The "Better Than Frey" Book
If only James Frey had taken a note from Exley’s self-described fictional memoir, A Fan's Notes, and put all questions to rest on the first page by telling the reader he had "drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life." But he didn’t and Exley did—and it’s the honesty-at-all-costs urgency in the narrative that makes the novel/memoir/whatever it is still have relevance in a 21st-century Celebrity Rehab world. The plot covers fairly typical territory for the addiction memoir genre: Mental institutions, rehab, figuring out what old family drama may have contributed to the current state of affairs. But Exley makes it relevant to the zeitgeist, and to the reader, by setting up football hero Frank Gifford as a foil as he examines his life through the ‘50’s and 60’s. He and Gifford were classmates at USC, but after graduation, as Gifford is on the field and Exley is in the stands cheering him on at Giants games, it becomes clear that in life, there are winners and there are losers. Why? It’s a question Exley—and every single addict—has asked. The familiarity of the struggle, regardless of the specifics, and the excellence of the prose, keeps A Fan's Notes compelling.
The One Where Chick Lit Goes to Rehab
Don’t let the fact that Rachel's Holiday is penned by best-selling women's lit author Marian Keyes fool you. Although its roots are firmly planted in the author's genre—and protagonist Rachel Walsh appears as a secondary character in some of Keyes’ other novels—the subject of rehab and addiction is given an unflinching examination by a captivating narrator. The novel opens with Rachel waking up to the realization that her roommate has called her parents, who are insisting she get on a plane immediately and head to rehab. The brilliance of this work lies in the ambivalence of the narrator—a woman who simultaneously realizes she needs help and wishes she didn’t; who can care about clothes and makeup and also come to terms with the deep lifelong depression she realizes her addiction has masked. Rachel’s concerns throughout rehab echo those of any alcoholic coming to terms with denial: Why did this happen to me? Is it my family’s fault? Will I ever date? Will I ever have friends? Will I ever be okay?—and her hilarious and plucky resilience make this novel approachable for anyone who’s ever worried they might be out of control and even more terrified to deal with that worry.
The One About Sobriety
Not just a rehab-redemption novel, the main thrust of Party Girl—written by The Fix’s Executive Editor—focuses on the roadblocks that can occur in the climb, or, in the case of protagonist Amelia Stone, skyrocketing ascent, from rock bottom. At the beginning of the novel, Amelia is a celebrity journalist always looking for her big break, saying yes to every assignment, cocktail, or bad date that comes her way. After leaving rehab, she’s ready to say no to alcohol and drugs but doesn’t see the need to shrug her say yes attitude—which is why she immediately accepts an assignment from a glitzy magazine to cover what the publishers assume is her party-heavy lifestyle. At first, Amelia’s confident she can simultaneously stay sober while mining her former life for ideas to keep her editors happy, but soon finds herself caught in the middle of a Who am I without alcohol or drugs identity crisis that’s identifiable to any alcoholic. In between active addiction and embracing recovery, Amelia is hopeful, funny, frightened, and trying to figure it all out without screwing up. She’s also a character whose shaky confusion after rehab is completely normal—and rarely explored in addiction fiction.
The Literary Genius Approach to Addiction
They say the devil’s in the details but in addiction it’s the denial found within the details that allows the devil to do its work. So is the case in Martin Amis' classic Money, where film director John Self is so mired in dealing with the day-to-day drama of trying to get his film made while pursing hedonistic pleasures that he has no idea what’s really going on in his life. Released in 1984, it’s become both a postmodern classic and a touchstone of 80’s excess but at its heart Money is an addiction novel about a world where more is never enough and the only possible road to salvation is to lose everything. Or is it? The subtitle, A Suicide Note, seems straightforward but in the worlds Amis creates, nothing is as it seems. Numerous contradictions and loopholes, exquisitely crafted sentences and prototypical Amis hilarity and nihilism keep the novel from becoming a morality tale.
The One That's All About Society
It may be frequently compared to Huckleberry Finn but Rule of the Bone isn’t likely to be featured on very many sophomore English class syllabi. Like Huck, 14-year-old Chapman (Chappie) Dorset is a kid who’s used to relying on his own resources to scrape by. But while Huck Finn occasionally searches for buried treasure, Chappie sells drugs. Abused by his stepfather, Chappie decides to leave his upstate New York hometown and strike out on his own. After adopting the name Bone, he finds himself in a variety of living situations—with a biker gang, squatting in an empty summer house and living in a school bus with an illegal Jamaican immigrant before he and the immigrant, I-man, eventually head to Jamaica together. Violent in parts, disturbing in others, Banks explores the themes of home, flight and family from a sideways perspective by creating a narrator who is simultaneously innocent and criminally minded. The contradiction raises the big questions—Is addiction innate? Are we who we are because of nature or nurture? Are some situations impossible to escape?—without providing any easy answers.
The Stream of Consciousness Car Crash
The narrative of Ellis’ first novel, written when he was only 21, is, at times, deliberately apathetic—as when it describes 18-year-old protagonist Clay aimlessly driving around the privileged LA towns he and his friends inhabit and when he realizes where the anything-for-the-high drug chase has led them. This somehow gives the book the rawness that makes it still relevant nearly 30 years after publication. Clay is at times self-conscious, angry, ungrateful and narcissistic but has just enough self-awareness for both he and the reader to realize life would be a lot happier if he wasn’t the way he was. But he is. And it’s that who am I and how did I get here dissonance between what could be and reality that give the book the gravitas to emerge beyond the MTV generation buzz it generated at publication and remain a classic.
Anna Davies has written for the New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Elle, and others. This is her first non-pseudonymous piece for The Fix and she is looking forward to more.
She introduced him to the drug that eventually killed him. It took a long time, but eventually I had to treat her the way my son would have wanted.
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