Diary of a dope fiend

Where does Eddie Little fit in the junkie lit canon? According to the jacket blurb of the ex-con-cum-scribe’s second and latest novel, Steel Toes, the New York Times finds Little “reminiscent of Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs.”

Fast company to be sure, but then again, some people find Vicodin reminiscent of china white. Which, come to think of it, describes precisely the relationship between Steel Toes and, say, Naked Lunch. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Vicodin. Any dope fiend worth his or her weight in meth will tell you it’ll do in a pinch. Just don’t overdo it. The stuff is hard on your stomach.

No doubt Bad Bobbie Prine, Little’s literary alter ego, would agree. Bobbie first made his badness known to the world in Another Day In Paradise, Little’s first novel, which was also made into a film starring James Woods and Melanie Griffith. In Steel Toes, Bad Bobbie is, at the tender age of 18, a career criminal doing hard time in a state juvenile facility. He’s about to be sent to the Big House to play whoops-I-dropped-the-soap with the adult male population, so Bobbie eases the tension by huffing gasoline with his buddies:

“The gas can seems to be miles away as my arm stretches like Silly Putty toward it, finally making contact, and my hand drags it to me, not in slow motion but in the fragmented reality brought on by inhalants,” thinks Bobbie, who doubles as main character and first-person narrator. “It’s like being stuck in a poorly working movie projector, life reduced to a series of black-and-white still photographs and you’re jumping from one picture to the next.”

That’s not a bad description of the remainder of the novel, as the Bad Bobbie Boys break out, try to go straight, but inevitably wind up risking it all for that last big score that will put them over the top. This tried-and-trued plot engine has plenty of horsepower, but that has its downside. Cuda and crew careen across the countryside, stopping first at a commune run by Ben, a black man who supposedly has Bobbie’s share from a previous heist. Not only doesn’t Ben have the money, he’s become a reverse racist, forcing white boy Bobbie and friends to flee to New York City, where they hook up with Syd, a nice Jewish lady who now specializes in white-collar crime.

Hmmm. Let’s see. An African-American. A nice Jewish lady. What next? A Mick, of course, as Bobbie barrels into Boston to take up the fine art of white-collar criminality with an old Irish chum. Nothing as elaborate as Enron here—the gang is kiting money orders and payroll checks. But they build up a hefty bankroll, which is cool, because Bobbie needs lots of dough to wine-and-dine his sexy-but-naïve college girlfriend and feed his heroin habit, which has returned as inevitably as his desire to hit that last big score and get out.

It seems Little, “a lifelong criminal and drug addict who turned his life around seven years ago,” knew where that Cuda was headed all along. The ride through this Lynch-like landscape is fast, blurry and occasionally jarring. But the choppy, passive voice he renders it in sometimes sounds affected.

William Burroughs once said all writing is autobiographical. For Little, all writing is autobiography. There’s a difference. In Naked Lunch, Burroughs used drug addiction as a metaphor for power relationships within society, transcending his own individual experience. In Steel Toes, the focus is always on Bad Bobbie, which is to say Eddie Little. All this self-absorption is bound to disturb the indigestion of sensitive readers, much like Vicodin on an empty stomach.