BOOK REVIEW / Pipin' a stairway to heaven: 'Iced' - Ray Shell: Flamingo, 5.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
Memoir-novels came in with Daniel Defoe and Thomas de Quincey. But even the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater would have been pressed to anticipate anything quite like Iced. For this is America as crackhouse, a right-now Manhattan and Boston (with a detour to black, rural North Carolina) in which cocaine rules. Here are the 'rocks' or 'stones' of street talk, the druggie's often literal stairway to heaven.

Ray Shell makes the novel's narrator one Cornelius Washington, black, fortyish, a survivor addict whose hunger for crack-cocaine is always uppermost. Even as he fears becoming a 'dirty-stinkin'-Vampire-Zombie', he repeats, mantra-like, 'pipin' is my occupation'.

Iced, then, offers a kind of Talking Addict's Blues. Its self-circling re-enacts the hermetic, passive-aggressive ambit of Cornelius's own drug life. This regimen of dependency and relief, supply and demand, has begun from weed and booze, graduated to uppers, downers, hallucinogens, coke, every and all kind of cocktail and, finally to a 'total devotion' to the pipe. Only heroin, whose needles have killed his brother Nate of Aids, has somehow escaped favour. It also looks back to a circle within a circle, to all the sexual and other 'trading', panhandling, shoplifting and the intimidation known as 'steaming', on which his habit, his monkey, has fed.

So much, so familiar, especially to anyone weaned on Burroughs (not that Shell even comes close to the Old Vampire's baroque sleights-of-hand) or previous 'drug' fiction by black writers, such as George Cain's Blueschild Baby or Robert Deane Pharr's impressive SRO. Does Iced break new ground? To an extent it does, although far less so than is implied by Maya Angelou's blurb, that talks about 'a powerhouse', a story that 'won't let you go'.

Written ostensibly from the 'Psychiatric Ward, Kings County Hall, NYC' between March 1991 and June 1993, the whole is cast in the form of italicised line-units, an echo, perhaps, of slave narrative or even the 'breath' catalogues of Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself'. The effect suggests rap or dub, a report from drug's borderlands pitched for down-home spoken telling. Which is not to overlook the more than passing hint of reflexivity that appears in the book, 'I'm so tired after writing,' Cornelius says almost plaintively. 'Memory is exhaustive.'

The story thus turns upon what he rightly calls 'snapshot memories', a diary set in its own version of plainsong. Invoked first is a black Brooklyn upbringing and parents who, seeking high achievers, have loved Cornelius, and his devoted sister Lorraine, 'paranoidly'. A white junkie room-mate at Columbia quickly helps him to get hooked - against little or no resistance. The therapist to whom he is referred turns out to be himself a user. Self-pityingly and repeatedly, Cornelius lets him sodomise himself, Cornelius, in return for drugs.

His 'middle-passage years', an image that recalls slavery with good reason, in turn involve him in his own obsessional sexual needs. In Boston, especially, he is involved with a black Lolita, Cynthia - an imbroglio which ends in murder. He makes a nervous, high-strung living on the edges of the disco and recording world, only to fall back in New York into a new phase of addiction, 'a blooded casualty'.

Even the friendship he establishes with Pia, the white North Carolina woman he thinks a 'soulmate', gives way to disaster when she and her children die in a fire brought on by his own drug-induced carelessness. The wheel turns, and turns again, against him, ending (how else?) in the inevitable hospital prison ward. 'So here I sit behind lock and key.'

One can't deny a certain hypnotic quality to Iced, most of all its virtual willing of itself from life to word. But like the drug it catechises, it is cast in prose which uses itself up even as it takes shape upon the page. As a consequence, one reading, one fix, so to speak, will do.