Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific accomplishment, and one that I have only managed once. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Chris Mendius’s Spoonful, a first-person fictional account of a junkie’s life which I finished reading this morning.
Characters: Protagonist Michael Lira, tough, capable, decent in many ways, flawed in many others, gives readers an intimate tour through his life as a junkie in seamy inner city Chicago, late nineties. With his running mate and fellow junkie Sal, he encounters friends, family, enemies, allies, victims, police and predators. The cast includes people from nearly every social strata. Despite the monkey on his back, Michael is a sharp, even witty observer of human nature, and a good judge of character. His insights and play-by-play bring them all to life in such realistic fashion that I have to believe these characters spring from the author’s own experience.
Here’s Sal, part-time cabbie, junkie, petty crook and film-buff:
Pale and sinewy with tatoos curled around his forearms, he was a real blood-and-guts dopefiend with the willowy good looks of a rock star. People always said he was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain, whose face was still all over the place. I could see the resemblance, except Sal had the jet black hair of his Sicilian ancestors. Before he got the idea to troll for a mark, Sal often parlayed his grungy appeal into a phone number or an offer to meet somewhere for a drink. One time he even fucked some woman in a McDonald’s parking lot on the way to O’Hare.
Plot: Michael’s narrative takes us through the literal highs and lows of the junkie’s quest to get that rush:
The dope crashed into my system like a wave hitting me on a secluded beach. But instead of falling on sand or rocks it felt like I was landing in a giant down pillow. Suddenly I didn’t have a care in the world beyond fawning appreciation for the sublime warmth consuming every inch of my body. The rush sucked me down into a deep nod before releasing me long enough to flash on my harrowing night. Rough as things had gone, it didn’t seem that bad anymore. That’s how it works with heroin. Once you feel that rush, it doesn’t matter what the fuck you had to do to score. It was worth it.
Everything in the story is secondary to and springs from that need — even love. Alas, as Michael discovers, love can be every bit as dangerous and deadly as the heroin habit.
Setting: Locations are real. The boys operate out of an apartment in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, a working-class neighborhood feeling the first strains of gentrification — which Michael and Sal hate.
Eisenhower Expressway, Lake Point Tower, Northwestern University, Elmwood Park — all these actual places contribute to the story’s feeling of emotional truth. The “Spoonful” of the title also refers to a fictional bar Michael, Sal and friends frequent, along with being part of a junkie’s works.
What I thought could’ve been done better: This is the part of my review of Spoonful I’ve been dreading. I have so little. I will say I spotted two, maybe three typos in the 322-page book. I got the print edition. For instance, on page 298, 12th line down, the word “to” is missing from the sentence.
Because I’ve got nothing else here, I’ll say I don’t recall Michael ever talking about what he looks like, other than I was no bruiser but I had Sal by at least thirty pounds.
I’ve got to be honest — I’m always on the lookout for what could be done better. I just didn’t find anything. Found plenty for the next section, though.
What I thought was good: Everything. From the colorful cover to the brief epilogue mixing hope and despair in equal parts, I liked everything about Spoonful. Vivid characters? Check. Vivid verbs and active voice? Check. Tense, compelling situations? Check. Showing you things you haven’t seen before? Check. Believable? Check. Humor? Check. Pathos? Check. Tragedy? Check. Peppered with tons of movie and pop-culture references? Check. At one point, Sal refers to his friends as “droogies.” Clockwork Orange. Loved that! Colorful, textured, rich narrative? Check.
Hard to believe a narrative about junkies could be rich and colorful, but Chris has pulled it off.
To help me prove my point, I’m opening the book at random — ah, page 140. What’s there? Michael ending his workday in the plumbing section of Home Depot:
As I punched out, my boss, a pasty corporate drone named Scott, pulled me aside.
“You are aware of our installation services,” he said or asked, He had a funny way of talking where you never knew which.
“Yeah,” I said, once again recalling my fine training.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure. Because, as you should know, there is no independent solicitation of business allowed here in the store or anywhere on the premises.”
I cursed that fucking bigmouth Hector as I felt a surge of anger and humiliation. Getting shot down in flames by a girl for being a working stiff with an apron and a name tag was bad enough. Getting reprimanded for it by this little pissant was the last straw.
“Fuck you, Scott,” I said.
“Pardon me?” he asked, his face flushed.
“You heard me, motherfucker.” I balled up my apron and tossed it on the floor in front of him.
Any page you open this book to will have a gem like that. Though this one is really a minor incident compared to the main action of the book, it is still such good writing, packed as it is with emotion, observation, and energy. The book is jammed full of such powerful prose.
Overall: Spoonful is a walk along the edge of the abyss, with a pro escort who knows just how and what to show you. Funny thing when I looked into those depths — for a second, I thought I saw myself.
I don’t give number or star ratings to the books I review. If I did, though, I’d give Spoonful all of them.
Good job, Chris!
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