Degeneration X

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This appeared in the winter 2008/2009 edition of Flux magazine (issue 67, pp. 66-67):

Degeneration X

Shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths with Tony O’Neill

Suffering from unspeakable withdrawal symptoms, a junkie bashes herself in the face with a book — repeatedly. Tony O’Neill does not mention the title, but a copy of Down and Out on Murder Mile, the hard-hitting sequel to his celebrated debut, would be most apposite. “My books are meant to read as immersive experiences,” he says. “You are dragged into the toilet stall and feel the needle going in.” This time round, however, the in-your-face squalor is shot through with the whitest flashes of transcendence. Whereas Digging the Vein showed the author “digging a big hole” for himself, Murder Mile relates how he crawled out of it.

There are cult writers, and then there is Tony O’Neill: the junkie’s junkie. This is a man who used to chase the dragon with the zeal of St George — even his dealer tried to persuade him to quit on one occasion.

O’Neill was born in 1978, on the wrong side of the track marks, as it were. He describes Blackburn as a “dying-on-its-arse old cotton town” where — according to one of his poems — those who fail to escape “pray for cancer or a speeding truck”. O’Neill legged it on the tail end of Britpop, playing keyboards with the likes of Kenickie and Marc Almond (he describes a later stint with dope fiends the Brian Jonestown Massacre as “Exile on Main Street, on a budget”). After his music career fizzled out, he relocated to the States and plunged headlong into the dark underbelly of Tinseltown, soon acquiring a serious habit and a couple of ill-suited wives. This dramatic period provided most of the material for his first novel, Digging the Vein, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described in his second.

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Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is billed as “semi-autobiographical fiction,” it seems to be based so faithfully on the author’s past that one wonders what is really fictitious about it. “My first and main reason for not labelling the book as autobiography is really simple,” he explains. “Who the hell would want to read my autobiography?”

Just as Morrissey grew into the kind of icon that graced the sleeves of his early records, O’Neill has become a biography waiting to be written. And inevitably, some readers are attracted to his work, not so much for its intrinsic value, but because the author has descended to the underworld Orpheus-style, and lived to tell the tale. But O’Neill (who mocks the idea that “drugs are a shortcut to any kind of insight” and is loath to ever become a “professional ex-addict”) knows that “you’d better bring something more to the table than your track marks and some missing teeth” if you are to become a proper author. “When I sit down to write, I don’t think that people will be fascinated by my story because of my personal history. I hope that the telling of it will fascinate them”. That said, he recalls attempting to compose a novel when he was 16 and realising that he had no story to tell. “Maybe for other people it’s different, but for me life had to knock several rounds of shit out of me before I knew what I wanted to say”.

More than its prededecessor, Murder Mile is what the Germans would call a Künstlerroman — a novel that is a portrait of the young artist. It chronicles its own genesis, but never in a tricksy, postmodern fashion.

The opening sentence hits a low point (“The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy”) and then it goes downhill for most of the way. Despite the seediness and hardship, the narrator’s loveless, and largely sexless, marriage to Susan — the aforementioned book basher — is quite romantic, in a Sid-and-Nancy kind of fashion. Here, drugs stand in for the love potion of so many traditional love stories, and there’s the obligatory coupling of Eros and Thanatos, the “unspoken agreement that [they] would eventually die together”. Witnessing this junkie couple in freefall, shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths, is often as exhilarating as a rollercoaster ride, at least on paper. “There’s something really romantic about death and self-destruction when you’re at a certain point in your life,” admits O’Neill. This death wish was underpinned by a kind of nihilistic hedonism coupled with a wide-eyed rejection of compromise and mediocrity. “Our lives are ultimately meaningless, so why not pass the time pleasurably? Heroin fed into that excessive, idealistic part of me: if I can feel this good for one moment, then I should be able to feel this good every moment of every day. Of course it can’t be, but I feel that there is some intellectual justification in saying that a life spent in the futile pursuit of some kind of transcendence is a life better spent than if you accept that it will never be as perfect as you hoped.” Drugs and sex offer fleeting intimations of immortality, but only unconditional love provides a way out. “Would I be dead if I hadn’t met Vanessa when I did?” wonders O’Neill. “In all honesty, the chances are yes. There certainly wouldn’t be any books.”

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Fresh Out of Dope

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This review of Tony O’Neill‘s Down and Out on Murder Mile appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 21 November 2008 (No 5512, p. 20):

Fresh Out of Dope

While suffering from withdrawal symptoms, a drug addict hits herself around the face with a book. Tony O’Neill does not tell us the title, but a copy of his new novel — in which this harrowing scene appears — would be appropriate. Down and Out on Murder Mile is the sequel to Digging the Vein (2006), the novel which established its young author as a figurehead of the “Offbeat” literary movement, alongside the more experimental Tom McCarthy. Unlike McCarthy, whose novels subvert the idea of authenticity, O’Neill belongs to the authentic school of writing as exemplified by Charles Bukowski and John Fante. To his admirers, he is a combination of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (or André Breton and Jacques Vaché), a resolution in himself of the art/life dichotomy.

Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is subtitled “A novel” and described by its publisher as “semi-autobiographical fiction”, O’Neill makes no bones about how closely it is based on his own history so that one wonders what, if anything, is fictitious about it. In the acknowledgements, for instance, he thanks his “wife and muse” — whose name in fiction, as in fact, is Vanessa — because she does not object to his “airing [their] dirty laundry in public”. The first-person narrator remains anonymous throughout, making him indistinguishable from the author, and the systematic use of the past tense (except for dialogue) reinforces the biographical feel.

Far from being a simple memoir, however, Down and Out on Murder Mile is a deceptively literary work, one which chronicles its own genesis. When the protagonist describes the mental games he once played to provide himself with “a perfect excuse for a little hit”, he takes a dig at the glamorization of junkie writers: “Did William Burroughs sit around, worrying about taking dope? Or did he just do it and then write immortal books?”. At times, heroin stands for the magic potion found in the traditional love story; at others, it brings about the obligatory mating of Eros and Thanatos: the “unspoken agreement” that the junkie couple will “eventually die together”. The fairy-tale qualities of the narrator’s romance with Vanessa are striking, especially in the squalid circumstances in which it takes place. Contact is first made when he drunkenly speed-dials a number at random on someone else’s mobile phone. Vanessa falls for him when he is at his “lowest ebb”, his “worst point”, his “most destroyed, destitute and bankrupted”, and she sees through all that as if he were a prince in disguise. The fatal attraction of dope is depicted in the novel as the result of a childlike rejection of compromise and mediocrity: “I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty — a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin”. Addiction is thus an attempt to give permanence to the “lightning crack of divinity” glimpsed at when shooting up. Epiphanies like these are better served by writing than by heroin; and this is the concealed theme of a novel ostensibly concerned with the day-to-day survival of an addict.

The opening sentence hits an almost comically low note: “The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy at a friend’s birthday party at a Motel 6 on Hollywood Boulevard”. The two soon get married and live unhappily ever after until they relocate to Murder Mile in East London, where the narrator is saved in extremis by unconditional love. A late chapter, entitled “Adulthood”, closes in true coming-of-age fashion: “And I know now, I need to grow up”. This is indeed a Bildungsroman but it is also a Künstlerroman — a portrait of the artist as a young junkie. O’Neill never mentions his first novel, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described here, but its composition haunts the book like a character in search of an author.

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