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Novels About Drugs

Arts & Lit | By The Top 13 on March 11, 2010

The genre of drug fiction, as much as or perhaps more than any other genre, is known for its terrible writing and trite storytelling. Perhaps the problem is that so much of it is at least loosely based on authors' own lives and it takes a supremely talented writer to maintain perspective when writing about personal experiences. Nevertheless, because of the amount of rubbish littering the genre, the best works truly stand out, and as avid readers of drug fiction, we've picked out the must reads for you. Accordingly, here are the Top 13 Novels About Drugs.

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Irvine Welsh - Trainspotting

1

Irvine Welsh - Trainspotting

1993

Scottish writer Irvine Welsh's debut novel is a sarcastic, funny, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking look at a group of mostly young people neck deep in Edinburgh's heroin counterculture of the late 1980s. Welsh tells the story in the first person by the novel's main characters - in both English and Scots - and his language initially can be a bit hard to comprehend, but it's more than worth the effort to get to know Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie, and the rest of the crew, who hit the big screen in an excellent adaptation by Danny Boyle. Long-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, Trainspotting was reportedly rejected for the shortlist because of its controversial subject matter. Choose this book.

Hunter S. Thompson - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

2

Hunter S. Thompson - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1971

This fantastic roman à clef and experiment in Gonzo journalism barely missed the top spot on this Top 13. But Hunter S. Thompson's surreal drug-addled meditation on the decline of American culture and consumerism - which was adapted into an excellent film with Johnny Depp in the lead role - wasn't always so beloved. Perhaps because of Thompson's portrayal of excessive drug use and Fear and Loathing's relative lack of plot, some early reviewers suggested that readers skip the book entirely. With time, that perspective largely has disappeared and the story of Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as they descend on Las Vegas (aided by pot, coke, acid, and other drugs) to cover a road race has taken its rightful place as a classic work in American literature.

Jim Carroll - The Basketball Diaries

3

Jim Carroll - The Basketball Diaries

1978

More so than any other book on this Top 13, The Basketball Diaries draws from the real-life experiences of its author. This embellished memoir tells the story of Jim Carroll though a collection of edited diary entries he made between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Viewed by many as a classic work of adolescent literature, this book was adapted into a popular - albeit watered-down - film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the titular role. Carroll's story of his descent from early prep basketball stardom into heroin addiction and prostitution is as repulsive as it is harrowing and compelling. In 1998, the book was referred to as "porno" in a public hearing that led the Gwinnett County library board in the Atlanta suburbs to ban it.

William S. Burroughs - Junky

4

William S. Burroughs - Junky

1953

Another semi-autographical novel, Junky - sometimes spelled Junkie - was the first published novel of noted avant-garde writer and artist William S. Burroughs and one of his two entries on this list. Written at the insistence of fellow Beat Generation writer Allen Ginsburg, who worked hard to find a publisher for this book, Junky is a unique eyewitness report detailing the seedy underbelly of New York, as well as the narrator’s efforts to untie the binds of addiction that take him from a federal prison in Kentucky to Mexico City. It's an excruciatingly honest confessional that is frequently cited as an important portrayal of heroin addiction in the 1950s.

Nelson Algren - The Man with the Golden Arm

5

Nelson Algren - The Man with the Golden Arm

1949

One of the most acclaimed novels on this list, Nelson Algren's most famous and enduring work was awarded the prestigious National Book Award in 1950. The Man with the Golden Arm tells the hopeless and self-destructive story of Frankie Machine, an illegal card dealer struggling with a brutal addiction to morphine in Chicago's Polish slum. Algren's writing overflows with vivid descriptions of the gritty neighborhood and Frankie's struggles to survive there. Frank Sinatra played the main character in a 1955 film adaptation of the novel.

William S. Burroughs - Naked Lunch

6

William S. Burroughs - Naked Lunch

1959

The second entry from Burroughs on this Top 13, this is widely considered to be his seminal work and is viewed by many to be among the greatest novels ever written. A series of loosely related "routines," Naked Lunch tells the story of a drug addict by the name of William Lee as he travels from one bizarre designation to the next, reliving experiences drawn from Burroughs' own life. From the U.S. to Mexico to Tangier, Lee is running from the law and searching for his next fix in this spectacularly written and politically blunt novel. The court battle over the banning of this book in Boston was the last significant library censorship court battle. In 1991, David Cronenberg released a film adaptation of Naked Lunch that was drawn both from the book and Burroughs' own life.

Bret Easton Ellis - Less than Zero

7

Bret Easton Ellis - Less than Zero

1985

The debut novel from the author better known for his classic American Psycho, this is a harsh, yet mesmerizing story about the lives of three obscenely privileged kids from Los Angeles in the early 1980s and their sad reunion when the main character returns home from college for Christmas vacation to find that his best friend has spiraled into a desperate haze of drugs and prostitution. This startling tale of excess and moral bankruptcy was released while Ellis himself was still in college. Though the book was adapted into a popular movie starring Andrew McCarthy with Robert Downey Jr. as the addict, Ellis was upset by the removal of many of the most repulsive scenes from the book. A sequel - titled Imperial Bedrooms - is due this spring.

Hubert Selby, Jr. - Requiem for a Dream

8

Hubert Selby, Jr. - Requiem for a Dream

1978

This anguish ridden novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. follows four New Yorkers as they each battle horrific addictions, centering around couple Harry and Marion, their friend Tyrone, and Harry's lonely, pill popping mother, Sara. When a plot hatched by Harry and Tyrone for a big drug score goes awry and they end up in jail, the results for all involved are devastating. In 2000, Darren Aronosky adapted the novel into a fantastic film starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans as the four lead characters. We're also big fans of Selby's debut, Last Exit to Brooklyn, which tells six more or less unrelated stories about people in hardscrabble Brooklyn in the 1950s.

Tony O'Neill - Digging the Vein

9

Tony O'Neill - Digging the Vein

2006

This debut novel from musician Tony O'Neill (he played in, among other bands, Kenickie and The Brian Jonestown Massacre) is the most recently published book on this Top 13. It's also among the most authentic in its description of the deleterious effects of addiction. The anonymous narrator's story in Digging the Vein is loosely based on the author's own struggles as an addict in the music business that led to him turning to crack and heroin before hitting the proverbial rock bottom. O'Neill's novel forces the reader to partake in literary rubbernecking; you know what happens next is going to be bad, but you simply can't stop reading.

Donald Goines - Dopefiend

10

Donald Goines - Dopefiend

1971

The first of an astonishing sixteen novels Donald Goines churned out during a five-year writing career, Dopefiend was written while the author served out a prison term. Goines had become hooked on heroin while serving overseas in the military and turned to crime to support his habit upon his return to Detroit. This devastatingly bleak novel feels highly informed by the author's own tragic life experiences. And while Goines will never be confused with Joyce, Dopefiend is a confidently told story that is relentless in its brutal descriptions of the wreckage heroin causes.

Philip K. Dick - A Scanner Darkly

11

Philip K. Dick - A Scanner Darkly

1977

The only entry on this Top 13 to delve into science fiction, this British Science Fiction Association Award winning novel by Philip K. Dick is a roman à clef of sorts. It explores the author's experiences in the 1970s as an amphetamine addict living with a rotating crew of addicts in Northern California. Yet Dick sets A Scanner Darkly in a dystopian California 20 years into the future, telling the story of a dealer of the highly addictive Substance D and the cop assigned to bring him down. But the cop has used D to an excess, and the drug causes users' brains to split into two personalities. So who exactly is the cop investigating? Dick's novel delves deeply into the drug subculture he once inhabited, offering a painfully stark portrayal of the thoughts and actions of desperate addicts.

Aleister Crowley - Diary of a Drug Fiend

12

Aleister Crowley - Diary of a Drug Fiend

1922

The first book on this Top 13 to be published, Diary of a Drug Fiend was the debut novel by noted occultist Aleister Crowley, who is credited with founding the mystical religion of Thelema. Though billed as a novel, like several other entries on this list, Diary is based largely on the author's own drug use. The novel tells the story of a very much in love couple who together descend into full-blown addiction and struggle to replenish their diminishing stash. With painstakingly intricate descriptions of the psychological states caused by drugs, Crowley offers a vivid study of addiction that incorporates many of the teachings of Thelema.

Jay McInerney - Bright Lights, Big City

13

Jay McInerney - Bright Lights, Big City

1984

Along with Less than Zero, which appears earlier on this list, Jay McInerney's debut is considered one of the best fictional accounts of the epic cocaine abuse that occurred among the young and rich in the early 1980s. Unique for its quirky second-person narrative, Bright Lights, Big City details the life of a young magazine fact checker whose mother has recently died and his model wife left. He responds by spending his nights prowling clubs with his best friend and ingesting copious amounts of cocaine. McInerney's prose is filled with vivid and intense descriptions of the nightly highs and corresponding lows. The novel was adapted into a 1988 film starring Michael J. Fox, which - despite generally good reviews - failed at the box office.

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Comments Leave a comment

stillathreat ★★

Interesting list, but I wonder where Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test is (though it is sort of factual, so that might explain its absence). Also, Fear and Loathing should be number one.

11:47 AM   Mar 11, 2010

XOffender 

Wow - great list. I lot of my favorite novels up here. If I was being pedantic, I would replace "Bright Lights Big City" with Alexander Trocchi's "Cain's Book" - a much worthier inclusion IMHO. Its cool to see a lesser known, newer book like "Digging the Vein" get a shout out here amongst all of these genre classics, although I personally preferred the follow up "Down and Out on Murder Mile", but that's just splitting hairs.

9:08 AM   Mar 12, 2010

sarahcheffy 

YES! Not one, but two Burroughs novels made the cut! Love this list. I'd have to agree with stillathreat on wanting Wolfe's Kool-Aid to be included, though it really doesn't fit on this list. There are so many great contenders out there though, so many favs will be left off. well done.

10:16 AM   Mar 12, 2010

neylan 

solid list. then again i would have loved to see Lesley Arfin's 'Dear Diary' included here. even though some would argue it's not on the same literary caliber as the books on this list, it's definitely a must read especially for those who are eager to try out chemicals.

8:27 AM   Jul 21, 2010

jhenderson 

Baby Huey, A Cautionary Tale of Addiction should be on this list. Realistic, often times hilarious, and thought provoking. I can not recall another novel where I found myself emotionally drained from laughing and crying. A sensational first novel.

12:40 AM   Aug 07, 2010

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