Soft Skull Press: 240 pp., $14.95 paper
Among the many elegantly wounded people in Richard Wirick's second collection of short fiction, "Kicking In," is a Dilaudid-addicted author with writer's block, what professionals call a high-functioning user. Like most of Wirick's under-the-influence subjects and narrators, he is composed and confidently literary, reminding himself of Nabokov's declaration that his fictional creations are, after all, his slaves.
As for his own creations, the frustrated writer-character wants "to give them freedom too, unexpected divagations that would surprise both him and readers." Divagations, indeed. In the interest of jump-starting his art, he dates a vulnerable woman to whom he introduces his other muse: his habit. Our hero needs revelatory liberation but is, as the woman understands, only trying to advance his stalled-out fictions.
Don't mistake such a cynical M.O. as Wirick's. Rather, in these 13 gorgeous and atmospheric stories, he dramatizes everyday drug behavior — recreational and otherwise, exploitive or empathetic — with an eye toward understanding how easy it is to become a subject in this malevolent experiment.
Wirick's stories argue, like Michael Pollan in "The Botany of Desire," that drugs are now as much us as we them. Valium, Demerol, OxyContin, marijuana, morphine: They demarcate the political world, from Afghanistan poppy land to Ciudad Juarez narco-apocalypse. Dangerous in Mexico and Somalia, they seem less exotic in Wirick's fictionalized settings — Los Angeles, Manhattan, Pennsylvania Dutch country, Lake Elsinore — where we might see and not recognize their effect.
That Wirick's fictional short-story writer so easily finds a willing acolyte (not to mention a lovely, young and eager one) speaks to his assumption that everybody is probably on drugs. Yet the addicts in "Kicking In" are no archetypes but fully realized, smart and sometimes funny: colleagues and relatives we try to avoid. Sometimes we cannot; often, we don't even suspect.
The chemical becomes the metaphorical in these humane portrayals. A soldier sneaks morphine as doctors remove a live grenade from his mortally wounded comrade. The decaying body found by a crime scene cleanup tech is more toxic dead than it was alive. A perpetual loser, hooked on Oxy, can't recognize as doomed the almost clichéd act of dragging a seemingly road-killed 12-point buck into the back seat of his car.
We might blame the drugs, expecting cause and effect. But there is none. It's too late. The drugs are omnipresent, characters in their own right, used and abused by an ensemble cast: private investigator, lawyer, mother, the cleanup technician assigned to a suicide he knows from high school, the rube gored in his car by that revived deer. Again, they are us.
And everybody knows exactly what is going on. A student reads William Blake on the bus, observing from his window in kaleidoscopic slowness the drama of DEA agents arresting addict parents who sold their dead baby's clothing for more of what accidentally killed her.
One standout story links decadent drugs and predatory politics. Young, cocky lawyers — wannabe poetry-reading bohemians — party at the zenith of the Reagan era, doing crack for the first time. It's a socio-narcotic moment illustrating success as a construct of draconian economics: "You kept your deep contempt for property but stepped away from it long enough to create a separate, acquisitive self."
Here, Wirick captures the idiom of trickle-down selfishness and its necessary acceptance of social stratification — we need the poor! — evoking all the trappings of that exploitive model: redwood patio decks, the innovation of "coke you can smoke," Yuppies and gentrification. Hilariously, the new aristocracy gets cottonmouth from freebasing, reverting, like 12th-graders, to a beer run.
Meanwhile, having shared with her a narcotic he knows can "wipe out whole swaths of existence from the mind, entire categories of memory," Wirick's fictional author cuts loose his now violently paranoid date and returns to his apartment, where he writes until he too falls victim to forgetting — except of what he's done.
Reading "Kicking In" is like falling fast down a deep, dark hole, then falling further. Yet every story here speaks to the further ambitions of its author, and the Blakean illuminations of faith he constructs.
Tonkovich edits the Santa Monica Review and is the host of "Bibliocracy," a weekly books radio show on KPFK-FM.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times