American Junkie is a heroin-fuelled fall through grunge Seattle with a guy hell-bent on his next high. From the cold streets to a prison cell, Tom Hansen is in search of only one thing… and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it.
Following Hansen’s addiction to heroin, the book jumps back and forth in chronology between current day events, and inciting incidents. It’s often in these previous events that most of the action happens. In contrast, the other side is dealing with the repercussions.
As Tom travels through Seattle, falling out of favour with music at the height of its popularity, we see a young man becoming desperate to find a foothold in life. Unfortunately, he seems destined to only fall down; finding himself in broken homes surrounded by syringes, used cigarette butts and bodily fluids.
In these moments of desperation, Hansen’s true nature shines through. He’s not the happy-go-lucky guy that you might be expecting him to be – the kind who fell on hard times but through sheer willpower integrated himself back into society.
The book plays out in a non-linear structure; his writing deeply pessimistic. However, it also has a dark humour that helps with swallowing the more challenging acts.
A Tough Nut to Crack
As the opening accounts for Tom’s final hurrah in heroin abuse, the following chapter looks at his childhood, giving insight into current events.
As the adopted son of Scandinavian immigrants, Tom grew up to understand hard work. He recounts his time working on the boats when the physical labour bothered most, but not him. In a sense, it gave him freedom from a job more subscribed with young men; a retail assistant or a pencil pusher.
Additional documents and newspaper cut-outs are scattered throughout the book to add further evidence. Each of these reinforces the extent of Hansen’s drug abuse, along with his short-lived music career.
There were a few moments when I did feel a little overwhelmed and thinking is this really true? But regardless of how much is and isn’t fiction, its Hansen’s creative license to do as he pleases.
Moving into dealing, Hansen encounters several celebrities, most of which are musicians (it’s Seattle early 90s at this point). None more illustrious that Kurt Cobain, seemingly at the peak of his fame, given what was to come.
The namedropping of celebrities such as Cobain and Bob Dylan feels a little conceited. Hansen himself professes to be in a band (Fartz) that was beginning to make it big in Seattle, only to be removed from the scene due to in-fighting and excessive drug use.
Nevertheless, as he describes coked-out Cobain, his writing takes an inward look towards that of the supplier. Looking at his own life and his own addictions is a daunting task for any writer, showing how far Hansen has recovered since his ordeal.
Hansen himself was in a bad place for the majority of American Junkie, hence the title. Although I never wanted harm to come of him, he’s equally not a great protagonist to root for. Again, he references this in his own writing, talking about how the highs eave you in a blurry mess and the lows in the mind-set of doing whatever it takes for that next hit.
His writing does have twinges of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior sprinkled throughout, but with less of the glitzy living of Rolodexes and briefcases, with instead clapped out bangers and clear plastic bags.
The dark humour throughout American Junkie stops this book from being a drag. It could easily have descended into an over-embellished memoir, but Hansen’s extraordinary insight and understanding help to set this apart.