of Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields (Bloomsbury, 342 pages, $24.95)
is What If This Happened? As in what if a pharmaceutical company and an elegant
NYC cocaine dealer invented and distributed a pill that turned the user into
a genius? What if there was perfection in a pill? What if Eddie Spinola, a depressed
copywriter toady in his garret on Ave A. (in other words, you, pal),
somehow got ahold of a big stash of these pills, ate one a day and within days,
with his brain lit up like a slot machine, had easily written the book he had
been unable to jumpstart with his own palsied intellect and ambition? What if
this miracle drug (known as MDT-48) could actually cause Spinola to brim with
such ambition and charisma that within weeks he will casually turn into a brilliant
day trader and a gentleman seer capable of orchestrating corporate mergers like
an idiot savant in wingtips? What if these pills ($500 a swallow, one dose is
worth about 20 hours of creative frenzy) inseminated Manhattan and Washington?
The answer is simple: It would blow. Period. For, as The Dark Fields
yawningly details, even the perfect designer drug has a vicious boomerang.
is a suicide note, a flashback; with a drug in the starring role, it can’t
be anything else. Glynn makes that clear long before the close of the (very
brief) first chapter, where we find Spinola dying in his Vermont hideout, waiting
on the "skull-wide agony" of withdrawal, and writing the final story
on his laptop: "So how do I begin this? …I probably only have a couple
It is not
particularly grating that The Dark Fields is yet another one of those
suicide notes that every mortally wounded player feels compelled to write after
he loses big one last time. Every exposition on an Age of Excess must be, at
its core, an apology, a suicide note. For if no one dies, you weren’t playing
hard enough, and nothing’s quite as tasty as a dupe who wins the cash and
prizes and then crashes and burns. Fitzgerald’s naive bootlegger-cum-scapegoat
(Glynn’s title comes from a passage in Gatsby), Martin Amis’
Money, McInerney’s Bright Lights (Spinola even uses the term
"Bolivian Marching Powder" to describe cocaine, his former addiction)
and the current shitstream of drug memoirs like The Dark Fields are all
concessions of failure. But The Dark Fields tries really hard to be something
special: one of the most problematic bits about The Dark Fields is the
twee ribbon bookmark sewn into the binding, cookbook style. And this ain’t
no drug cookbook, or even an anarchist’s diary.
Glynn is no stranger to the banality of cocaine addiction, writer’s block
or the fruitless wonderings of how to begin a novel, and in a somewhat bitter
stroke he gives us a banal and fruitless narrator. And that is the most grating
part: Spinola is a boob right out of the gate, and throughout the novel, his
whining monologues about his career, his habit, his apartment, his appearance
and his love life are so dead-on boring I wanted to be high just so he’d
be interesting to me.
interesting, though, is Glynn’s take on the MDT high. Spinola describes
it as "[t]his unrelenting fucking surge of having to be busy,"
and the slick shady character who gives Spinola his first dose (for free, of
course) describes MDT in a way that sounds, to addict ears, like all perfection:
"You know the way drugs fuck you up? You have a good time doing them but
then you get all fucked up afterwards…this little baby is the diametric opposite
MDT is ambition
in a pill (every dead battery’s dream); and it even comes with no piper-paying
the morning after. The drug gives an endless chrysalis of energy and ideas,
charm, productivity, loquaciousness, with no appetite or need for sleep, which
are also the garden variety symptoms of mania–the high and wild side of
manic depression; the crazed war-whoop before the death gurgle. Not fun. Mania
is probably a required pathology for those who want to do more than just live
like a hunchback in Manhattan, the real twin city of no-fuse and long-fuse,
a place that fosters equal and extreme parts mania and depression. Yet if anyone
thinks perfection is a $500 hit of piebald, wall-eyed mania, a disorder that
eventually lands one in the lap of an intake nurse, jabbering like a supermodel
with early Alzheimer’s, then we have a problem.
Glynn’s detail of MDT’s more refined effects is the best part of the
book, and the best part of the high–it’s like the opposite of ADD,
and a cokehead’s dream come true. Superior language acquisition skills,
the ability to read and digest fat books in a single sitting and an unwavering
attention span sound good to me right about now, and, at least in The Dark
Fields, MDT might be the only way for the mortals to keep up with evolution.
MDT is the ecstatic finger of God in Adam’s bum, for it allows Spinola
to quickly alchemize the avalanche of information hurled at him. Even a tired
fraud like Spinola can run with the creme de la creme, who, in The Dark Fields,
are (scarily enough) the global moneymen: crass, Midas-rich, intelligent suits
who are dazzled by his seemingly homegrown talent.
MDT addiction doesn’t simply ruin his life and career, oh no. After all,
designer drug addiction is more than just a personal hell; it’s also grounds
for a cloddy suspense novel. In one of Glynn’s more heavyhanded gestures,
Spinola’s frightening blackouts (caused by his increasing dependence on
MDT) and his erratic behavior are responsible for the collapse of a huge merger–and
perhaps the dissolution of all of the behemoth companies involved. Spinola also
might have killed a prominent Mexican artist’s wife while he was in a blackout.
Too bad, because relations between Mexico and the U.S. are strained to begin
with, and war is imminent. Like a stoned Forrest Gump, Spinola causes the world
to unravel, and just before he hightails it out of the city with cops and creditors
in his wake, his supply gone, an anonymous baddie from the pharmaceutical company
calls and lets him know that he has been "a very useful subject."
As Spinola dies in exile like a useless beetle on a glass slide, he realizes
that his suspicions were true. The head of the pharmaceutical company that makes
MDT is the brother of the Secretary of Defense, and all of the top brass in
Washington are turned on as well: the President is on tv, and Spinola can’t
bear to look at the "alert, gorged MDT expression in his eyes."
finishes his story as the book ends ("I look at the keyboard once more
and, wishing the command had a wider, smarter application–wishing it could
somehow mean what it says–press ‘save’") and is presumably
just another dead junkie criminal in an ugly hotel room. Glynn might not have
invented the perfect drug, but he might have invented the perfectly hideous
drug addict: a boring loner who causes a hell of a lot of casualties.