Digging The Vein by Tony O’Neill is a fascinating insight into the grim and despairing world of a heroin and class-A drug addict. Published by Wrecking Ball Press, the book explores the extreme highs and lows of human existence and shines a light on the rapid spiral into depression and degradation that drug addition can cause.
On a relentless Los Angeles summer day, you walk barefoot over broken glass and melting tarmac to meet your connection, praying that he will extend your line of credit to one more bag of heroin. You are alone, penniless, and wracked by violent withdrawals. Last night you robbed a psychotic crack dealer named Shakespeare, and had to abandon your apartment for fear of reprisals…
The novel is set in Hollywood, but the setting is far from bright. There are a lot of gritty scenes in this book, but what the author does brilliantly is show the reader how the addict feels about the drugs he’s taking. We know what he’s doing and that he’s poisoning his deteriorating body. Instead of being explicit and saying “I was hooked on drugs, I loved them more than I loved myself,” the author SHOWS the reader rather than TELLS. He does this by describing the drugs and the drug-taking process in an almost poetic manner: “There’s something in the ritual that you learn to love – opening the balloon of heroin and placing the dope into the spoon, which is stained dark brown with old heroin residue and coasted black with carbon on the underside. There is a smell to Mexican black tar heroin…caramel or treacle mixed with the smell of lost childhood summers. The smell of a strange nostalgia, of a yearning that you can’t explain…” A real show of literary talent.
The protagonist knows full well what he is doing to himself, he knows what his deep-rooted issues are, and he knows what is good for him and what isn’t. But the book doesn’t try to be judgemental, and it doesn’t try to provide a moral to the story. It shows the reader how rational, and at the same time irrational, a drug addict can be. He has no motivation to change his own habits or ways of behaving sometimes, and yet he’s fine to criticise others with no perception of the irony: “It’s as I’ve always said, drunks got no class to them. They’re worse than crack heads, stumbling around breathing their fumes on you. A fucking liability.” The author and the narrative work to show What Is, not necessarily What Should Be. In many ways it is a breath of fresh air from the normal format of a novel.
One thing which I would have liked to have seen in this book is more of a story arc, or a plot, as it didn’t seem to have one. Saying that though, by its very nature this book doesn’t really have a logical ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ – it begins with addiction and continues with addiction. This is actually a very clever reflection of how life probably feels to an addict who just cannot find a way out, no matter what they do. The form of the novel reflects the unfortunate reality of some people’s lives. This book is an exploration of a lifestyle, an open window showing the reader into a whole new world, rather than one which takes us on a specific journey with a start and a finish.
The whole story isn’t completely dark – it features humour, loyalty, heartbreak, and human endeavour. I read it on a conference trip and must admit I sailed through it. It is very well written, rhythmic, interesting. It is something different, and that, to me, has to make it worth reading. If a novel stands out in your mind for positive reasons and leaves a lasting impression, then the author has done their job correctly. Well done to Tony O’Neill and Wrecking Ball Press.