Published on May 17th, 2013 | by Timothy Thomas McNeely0
Chasing The Tacoma Pill Junkies
There is a debate carried on throughout The Tacoma Pill Junkies, the new release from Tacoma author Joshua Swainston, regarding the best drug movie, and to a lesser extent, the best drug literature. It may well be debate that decides whether or not you like this novel. The pill junkies of the book’s title argue variously for many movies, but they come down on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “Trainspotting” as the strongest contenders. Swainston’s story draws relatively equal parts from all of them, all with an addict’s obsessive-compulsive need to keep the high going.
Reading The Tacoma Pill Junkies can be a bit like a trip, I suppose. The book has incredibly short, staccato chapters, compensating for whatever ADD or ADHD may need service in the reader; it catalogs, in great detail, the various quirks of each character, the dingiest details of its Tacoma exteriors, and of course every way in which to get high off of pills. Threaded throughout is a murder mystery that slow-burns to quite a surprise. And like any good drug movie, there is also the search for the next hit, the bigger hit, the last hit, and the consequences that go along, not least of which is more murders.
The story takes place, as the title suggests, in Tacoma. Swainston lives in Tacoma when he is not on a tug in Alaska (it is interesting to note this occupation of his, not least of which because one character, Val, is engaged in building the false persona of a long-time seaman through information mostly garnered out of old novels and nautical manuals he checks out at the Tacoma Public Library).
The Tacoma element in this book cannot be played down. And sadly, it is not an encouraging portrait of our fair city. However, we are, of course, talking about junkies and their friends. It makes sense that unflattering locations would be a regular element of such a tale. It will also make you increasingly uncomfortable with public transportation and the Tacoma Mall.
The novel is an intertwining of three stories: the janitors, the single mom, and the junkies. There is overlap into all three through the character of Reno, our “choose life” junkie, the one trying, over time, to clean up his act, largely for the sake of the single mom, Courtney, and her son, Aiden. Reno also, for some reason, does crossword puzzles, which conveniently mirror and comment upon the situations occurring while he’s filling them out.
In fact, at all times, we know what everyone is reading, what websites people view, and how everyone prepares their meals, their clothes, their deals, and their drugs. This overwriting, over-describing is both endearing and annoying: endearing for the true Tacoma-phyle and/or drug paraphernalia aficionado, who wants to know precisely the decor of Magoo’s, the smell of burning foil, or the route of the 53 bus; possibly annoying for the more plot-minded casual reader. It’s hard to decide what’s superfluous and if anything is essential, and at times it weighs down the action. In this, it follows some of the style of Chuck Palahniuk or Michael Chabon, true catalogers of experience, style, and place. In that spirit, Swainston is a competent craftsman, reveling like many Tacomans in the grit of this city.
For example, the book follows a bunch of night janitors around the Tacoma Mall, and while such moments are authentic, to a point, they are also sometimes only as interesting as you can imagine following night janitors around the Tacoma Mall may be. There are detailed references to everything from bus routes and the best food court vendors to steal soda from, to the equipment housed in service closets: “Inside was a set of shelves with several tools ranging from a Makita Chop-box to a Ryobi Power Drill as well as a plethora of hand tools. A bag of Purina dry cat food sat heaped in a corner. On the opposite side of the room from the tools sat what looked like an over-sized bumper car with amber lights mounted on the back. The Predator 40R Riding Automatic Floor Scrubber.” Now we know.
That said, many of the descriptions are simply so spot-on that it’s hard not to get a contact high from the recognition of a place or a Tacoma figure – much like seeing your personal haunts as backdrops in a movie:
Tower Lanes epitomized the essence of the mid-eighties bowling craze. Rust-colored carpet, pounded flat from decades of wear. Lanes accented with broken neon light. A hazy bar in back supported a smattering of regulars drinking tall boys of whatever was cheap that day. Three pool tables tucked back in next to the arcade heavily crowded by pre-drinking age kids trying to make a social happening. A Tacoma police officer stood watch by the front door. The jukebox in the corner played primarily late-eighties, early-nineties metal intermixed with current top forty and hip-hop.
There are drug-addled debates about picking up girls, porn sites, the best drug movies, ad nauseum. While this lays a thick layer of atmosphere over the book, it is as unbalanced as the drug users it describes.
Nonetheless, there are many choice images and descriptions to be had. Concluding a scene in the back office of a mall clothing store, we read: “As if the office was a piñata, a surly boutique manager and two make-believe cops burst out.” One purse-snatching character is given the name “Rat-boy” by our spunky single mom. One frequent bus patron is a foul-mouthed dwarf in a Rascal, a character who, in his rage, goes far beyond anything likely to be tolerated by real bus drivers or patrons in Tacoma.
There is a love story mixed up in it all. There are deals that go well, and those that go very, very badly. There are a vast array of Tacoma locales on display, from the east hill to Owen Beach.
If you like some of the virtues of the movies previously mentioned – drugs, the results of drugs, discursive conversation, and meticulous attention to details, even the uncomfortable ones – you’ll find a good read in The Tacoma Pill Junkies. If you always thought there should be a drug-laden murder mystery set in Tacoma, you now have your book.
The Tacoma Pill Junkies by Joshua Swainston. 246 pp. Createspace by Amazon. $12 paperback and $4.99 ebook.