The Book on Drugs

By Tony O'Neill 05/22/12

JR Helton hates literary writers, recovery memoirs, and everything he learned when getting his MFA. But he loves drugs and has written a magnificent book about them.

Comparing the book to the man Photos via

“You know, I hate what’s considered literature today in America. No wonder they say people don't buy as many books; it is simply because the books are boring and dishonest. And the literary ones are the worst.”

JR Helton is chatting with me at my local watering hole in Queens. It’s a dive where few people speak English. Besides JR and me, there’s smattering of dusty-looking old men playing pool, a guy in a cowboy hat feeding quarters into the Wurlitzer and a guy who looks around 4’9 arm-wrestling the barmaid. 

I’m here to interview JR about his latest book, Drugswhich is being released this month. My review: if Mark Twain had snorted coke, chomped on painkillers like they were Tic Tacs and huffed enough nitrous to keep a fleet of dental surgery patients grinning, Drugs is the novel he’d have written.  

I asked JR for his thoughts on American literature. Seems he’s got a lot to say on the subject.  

“I can't stand that Franzen guy or Foster Wallace or any of these people who are supposed to be literary,” he says. “Don't even get me started on academia and literature and their crappy dull poetry and short stories. And what’s worse is that I happen to have an MFA and seven years of college lit—a couple of lit degrees—so I can certainly sling the literary bullshit if I have to. I did have to in order to graduate from college but I always resisted it and always hated it and still do. In fact, I am embarrassed that I got an MFA back in the late ‘90s but I simply had to in order to be a college lecturer and to get out of working the construction which was killing my back—I just couldn't physically do the work anymore or otherwise I’d probably still work construction and write my books. It was so humiliating for me to even be there at all; I was completely drunk for my two-and-a-half years of grad school.”

If Mark Twain had snorted coke, chomped on painkillers like they were Tic Tacs and huffed enough nitrous to keep a fleet of dental surgery patients grinning, Drugs is the book he’d have written. 

JR takes a sip of his drink and shoots me an easy grin. I sometimes like to think of the measure of a good writers as this: are they the kind of person you’d want watching your back if there was a sudden explosion of violence? You could definitely count on a Hemingway or a Bukowski in that kind of situation. Even Burroughs—he may have been a scrawny son of a bitch but he’d probably be packing heat. The last person on this earth you’d want to have to rely on in a bar fight would be Jonathan Safran Foer.  

It’s not that I’m suggesting JR is a violent guy. He comes across like a pretty laid-back, easy-going type to me. But if you imagine him landing punches the way he lands sentences, then he could certainly go a few rounds with Liston at his peak and still come out looking pretty good. You figure he’d fight with the easy grace of a natural—not the carefully schooled professionalism of a Mayweather but more like the brutal, God-given ability of an Ali. Just like Harry Crews. Hell, maybe it’s a Southern thing.  

Drugs is a book about growing up in America and one of the best I’ve ever read at that. Drugs—all drugs, as many drugs as Helton could get his hands on—are merely the prism through which JR filters his experiences. There have been many books about drugs and most of them have been bad. Did JR feel any of that psychic baggage when he sat down to write this one?

He seems a little amused by the question.  

“I never think about what anybody has said on any topic when I sit down to write any book. In fact, the last thing I thought or cared about when I wrote Drugs was whether or not anyone else had, does, or would write about them. Every book I write is just my own personal deal, my own trip through something as I basically try to figure something out—in many cases, just to find out what happened.” JR looks thoughtful, empties his glass. “It's just a personal process is all; I go through it and hopefully I learn something in telling the story. I've been writing for 30 years so Drugs is just another book in a line of five or six of them now.”

But surely he must have read some of the other books I’m thinking about here.  After all, the drug memoir has become its own genre after going through a post-millennial boom. It almost feels like it’s part of the process of getting clean these days: stop doing drugs, get your teeth fixed, then write a tell-all memoir. Were there any he’d read and liked?

“Nah. I hate all of them and don't read any of them. I mean I've tried to read a few.” He looks like he’s wracking his brain for a moment, then clicks his fingers and says, “Actually, wait, I did read Jerry Stahl's book Permanent Midnight. Terry Zwigoff sent me a hard copy of it back in ‘98 and said I should read it.”

What did you think?

“I thought it was great because it was so honest and unsparing and yet not filled with a lot of the self pity that many of them have. I especially hated that James Frey's guy's book. I was in a bookstore one day and picked it up and I mean, I couldn't get two pages into that thing. I can't even believe this is a genre. What do they call it—‘kick lit’?”

Recovery lit, I guess. In England, they call ‘em misery memoirs.

JR nods. “Then again, I can completely understand it as it fits in so well with the whole War on Drugs propaganda narrative: to have so many of these books by so many people that say Gee, I screwed up my life and yours on drugs and drugs are bad and I'm bad and I can't control myself and I need help, etc. etc. which perpetuates this lie that drugs are somehow inherently immoral—that drugs are wrong or evil, that the state and the government needs to step in and lock us up for our own safety and treat us all like little children instead of responsible adults who should be able to make choices and take care of ourselves.”

While JR quit a 10-year hydrocodone habit recently, he’s no more a “sober” writer than I am, at least by the standards set by AA. It’s a path that many of us take but one that is often looked down upon—or even outright mocked—by the recovery community. As we order more drinks, I ask JR for his thoughts on sobriety. He shrugs.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.