Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Marijuana Diaries

“Budding Prospects,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1984; “Rule of the Bone,” by Russell Banks, 1995.

While you are waiting to see if Obama/Biden can again outdo Bush’s pot busts in the next 4 years, you can read these two hilarious and/or true books about the evil weed.  Boyle and Banks are two of the top U.S. fiction writers who cover working-class life.  Though not writing about riots, strikes, revolution, class war, factory work, the assassination of rich people, service work, office work, anarchists or socialists, they write about something a bit more acceptable in the present climate – white people who happen to be blue-collar and/or poor.  Books about the former radical events are few and far between, but as society disintegrates, they will become more prevalent. 

Both of these books center on marijuana – its sale, cultivation and enjoyable use.  This has resonance since the statistics that claim only 10% of the U.S. population uses marijuana are about as accurate as post-U.S. Prohibition estimates of illicit booze.  Scratch a white working-class booze hound now, and he’s probably got a stash too.  And then add in the black and Latino folks?  Sheeeit.  A quarter of houses in Minneapolis probably house the not-so-evil weed.


“Rule of the Bone” is part of a series of books by Banks that combine scenes of New Hampshire and New York with the balmy breezes of the Caribbean – Florida and Jamaica.  His priors – the great novel, “Affliction,’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Continental Drift,” “Cloudsplitter,” (a novel about John Brown), “Trailer Park,” and the most recent “Lost Memory of Skin,” - all center on working-class characters being torn apart by circumstances.  Banks has to be congratulated for not allowing his status as a literature professor or the self-centered tenets of MFA writing programs dull his interest in the real world. 

“Bone” is a tattooed young kid who has escaped from an abusive relationship in a trailer-court in rural Plattsburgh, New York, along Lake Champlain.  He becomes a self-identified kid ‘criminal’ – hanging with bikers, breaking into rich people’s stocked cabins, and eventually, living in an abandoned school bus with a ganja man.  There he turns his life around, being taught another way of living and thinking that seems superior to the bargain-basement ideas fed him since he was a little kid.  Bone learns all the rules of the ganja trade (he’d been a small-time dealer earlier…) from his Rasta mentor I-Man, learns the Rasta code, and eventually travels to Jamaica with I-Man when he finds out his real father is also living in Jamaica.  There the ganja deepness only gets deeper.  Some reviewers have called Bone a new “Holden Caulfield” or “Huckleberry Finn,” but I think he actually is more real than Caulfield or Huckleberry – at least to us.  And time is not irrelevant.  Mooning only over books that are a 100 or 50 years old is actually quite odd.  Does the present hold such menace?

Banks has a hallucinogenic view of rural New England – a place of blasted farms, greasy spoons, shitty little towns run by businessmen, real trailer parks, bloody anger, perversion and brotherhood.  Bone spends his time in malls being harassed by underpaid rent-a-cops who score weed on the side; hitchhiking from tiny town to tiny town, living in closets alongside thieving bikers; enduring his step-father’s sexual attentions; living through firestorms, cold and poverty – and comes out the other side.  Marijuana forms a normal substrate of his social and economic life, much like alcohol, though not quite so stupid or sad.  The Bone Abides.


In T.C. Boyle’s hilarious book, “Budding Prospects,” (not ‘Buddenbrooks,’ thanks), three working-class guys get roped into an agricultural mountain of mishaps and heroism trying to grow weed in Mendocino County, California.  Boyle’s ‘priors’ are the political “Tortilla Curtain,” the hippie “Drop City,” the environmental “A Friend of the Earth,” the verbally hilarious “Water Music,” the deeply historical, “World’s End,” and the too-well known, “Road to Wellville.”  This is a cautionary tale about the lust for money.  Lots of money.  The easy life.  A $Half-Million!  Boyle is more of a comedian than Banks, and punctures his prose with set-ups.  He’s also someone who is an observer, but not so much a feeler as is Banks.  Banks, heavyweight; Boyle, middleweight with a hook. 

The central character, Felix, gets convinced by a quirky, rich shit-bag named Vogelsang that he can score big by creating a marijuana plantation at the top of a large hill in California’s version of Appalachia.  He talks two other friends into the plan – Gesh, an enormous doper and Phil, his other high friend.  You have to hand it to these three – they handle every disaster the bud business could throw at them – and survive.  Nosy and retarded neighbors are slobbering up their road.  Snitches haunt them in bars.  Animals eat their crop.  Fascist Hiway Patrol cops knock at their car windows.  Inept Harvard biology majors are their mentors.   And a beautiful woman fashions clay pots – the most dangerous creature of all.

Boyle ends the book with the beautiful losers losing, but not everything.  Felix loves drinking a bit too much, and his dick even more.  Sodden or enamored, Felix is no match for Vogelsang – nor is the rest of the trio.  As is typical of literary ‘observers’ of life like Boyle, his characters get mad, but they don’t get even.  They fall in love or get high or get a bit of money – in other words, they survive. And that is about it.

Red Frog
And I did not buy these at May Day Books - but we have plenty of even more political fiction.
December 18, 2012      

No comments: