Ghosting Around: An Interview With Tony O’Neill
Drug memoirs are a bore. In the main, they smack (you see what I’ve just done there?) of cliched fodder to feed middle class fascination with the stricken street. Dirt in this context is a credential of reality. But I, well, dig Digging the Vein, the first book from Tony O’Neill, a fictionalised account of his LA drug hell. Why? Because it’s more than a standard narcotics saga. With its unfastidious relish for honesty and life, Tony’s book is pop writing at its best — and good pop writing alters the way people interpret the world, illustrating new experiences, the possibilities all around, be they sex, drugs, travel, whatever. Digging the Vein has the quality of speed, tension and motion shared by every good rock song. Tony drives a fast car to the edge of the world — on the wrong side of the road. Yeah. He burrows ever deeper into the city dweller’s subterranean, neon-struck life. He roams the city’s black heart, trying to set it right. To fix it. To fix himself. Dig?
Tony hails from Blackburn, Lancashire, and in the 90s found himself in LA after embarking on a disastrous marriage to a local girl. His book charts the quick disintegration of that relationship and the slide into a dark pall which characterises addiction in the USA. In Digging the Vein people party, move around, get evicted, become homeless, steal, get beaten up by the cops, try desperately to cop, do drugs, sell drugs, beat other people up, cheat, steal, OD, walk barefoot in the blistering LA heat to get more drugs, discover beatitude, get stuff, lose stuff, fail, have breakdowns, take more drugs. Then, it’s all downhill from there. What happens to Tony carries him to places he doesn’t know.
“I actually wrote the book in London, after I had returned from LA,” says Tony. “I was on a methadone programme and I was just hanging around. Doing a bit of work here or there, some political activism — drug user rights, that kind of thing. I’d given up on writing altogether, lugging around an old laptop full of notes and ideas but it made me sick to even think about writing this stuff down. But when I started detox from methadone, I started dreaming about past events, having perfect recall of some of the stuff that had happened in LA. Really terrible things, it was like my mind was out to destroy me by dredging up the most horrendous scenes and images: bringing people to the hospital after they’d overdosed, getting hassled by the cops outside the hospital, sleeping in cars, stuff that I hadn’t thought about for a while. And to prevent me from either going insane or starting up on heroin again I had to write it all down.”
Tony has an ability to infuse dramatic significance into dreadful moments of his own life without being bathetic or sentimental. In fact, thoughts occasionally seem frozen and insights benumbed with the underlying banality of blank effect.
“The whole tone of the book is about trying to capture the feeling of being on heroin,” Tony explains. “It’s quite an unemotional, detached place. I really wanted to convey the frame of mind that allows you to think, when someone is turning blue: ‘Well, if he dies, where am I going to hide the body?’”
These are hurried visits to scenes of violence and despair, but Tony’s viewpoint is never that of a victim. Some people have a need to be underdogs, you can hear it in the gloat with which they detail their misfortunes. Tony, however, does not crave sympathy, and he is unapologetic about his drug use.
“I was always very bored by drug memoirs when it got to the part when the writer gave up drugs, and got healthy,” says Tony. “That seemed to the be the part where all of the life would deflate from the book. When a writer gets too satisfied, all the fire goes out of their work. I don’t want to read about that and I didn’t want to write one of those books. I’m not in AA or NA, and I don’t believe in the recovery industry. I was forced to try those programs in various charity recovery wards, and it was similar to joining the scientologists, very regimented, very pseudo-religious, and I found it to be almost counter-productive for me to be involved with the 12-step program. It just became something else I wanted to kick against. When I finally decided to quit heroin, I had to rationalize that decision by telling myself I was simply taking a break. Anything else would have been impossible for me at that point. Whether that’s going to be a lifelong break, who can say? Some days are better than others. Luckily, a lot of that compulsive part of my personality has been absorbed into the writing now.”
“The books of Dan Fante were a big inspiration during the time I was getting it together, I’d just read Mooch and I loved the fact that he didn’t write about how he saw the light and stopped drinking. It was more like the hope is in there, but it’s not signposted. I wanted my book to sit comfortably with the work of people like Fante or Burroughs, rather than the blockbuster addiction memoirs that are so fashionable right now.”
“I have spent hours and hours and hours with shrinks, doctors, and case workers all trying to discover why I took drugs, and the answer I gave them, an honest one, was: I like drugs. I wasn’t running away from any terrible family trauma, and they hated me for that, there was nowhere to go with it.”
For Tony, smack was a way to explore disturbing, inconsolable ideas about the world and its loss of purpose. What better way to act out rage at a cautious, work-orientated politically correct and ascetic society?
“Back when I started, taking heroin was a kind of political statement for me,” says Tony. “I felt that one of the most revolutionary things you could do was to stick a needle in your arm. It’s like taking all the cogs out of the machine. The world of regular work was a place of total horror for me. The drudgery of it all! How could I be expected to do this for the rest of my life? Heroin was about my deep disgust for how the modern world is, it was the most complete way to opt out of it.”
Cop out via copping, as it were. Our hero — actually Tony has that larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp-fiction anti-hero — loses thread of the track of his own life. He fucks up and hits concrete, and carries on. Sometimes, as they say, the metaphysics of the street — the wild craziness of cutting loose and doing it — are beyond understanding.
These days, Tony is in New York (with a new wife and daughter), a city unlikely to inspire him in the same way as LA once did. In Digging the Vein, Tony discovers the seething, stinking spiritual city beneath the temporal one. But of his latest location, he complains: “Parts of it are so Disneyfied. When I first came to New York, I expected the Times Square of Taxi Driver, but it’s all Gap and Baby Gap. You’ve really got to hunt down the seedy areas, even the East Village and St Marks has all been bought up by yuppies. They come here because they’re attracted by that kind of ambiance, and then they kill it dead. It happened in LA too. A lot of the locations in my book are no longer as they were. I recently heard there are million dollar apartments right on a corner where I used to score crack.”
Forsaking NY, Tony’s work-in-progress is set in London, and concerns a nameless junkie ghosting around after the tube bombings. “That’s kinda what I do in New York,” he says, “Ghost around.” That, and write stuff for people who still believe that writing at its best is something unsanitised, unsafe, and liberating. Something that bursts forth like the goddamn LA sun and says: I don’t regret anything.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Richard Cabut has written for the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Big Issue and many other publications. He writes fiction, takes pictures and cycles around town. He used to play in the punk band Brigandage and publish the fanzine Kick.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 6th, 2006.