There are lots of stories about drug addiction out there. It’s a subject that will always attract readers because, while most people wouldn’t want to experience something like a heroin habit, many would want to understand why drug addicts find it so hard to give up. It’s also a topic ripe for fictionalisation, with its ready made tension between addiction and rehabilitation, crime and punishment, as well as the constant threat of death lurking in the background.
But while there many books that tackle the same issue, I couldn’t imagine a more authentic depiction of heroin addiction than Luke Davies’ Candy. Like the novel’s narrator, Davies had a smack habit for over a decade, and his hard won experience allows him to achieve a novel that is harrowing and poignant and overflowing with unmistakable truth. In Candy, there is no of the glorification of a sex and drugs and rock’n’roll counter-culture, no breaking of taboos, none of the mad freedom of Hunter S. Thompson or Jack Kerouac. Just a steady descent into addiction that destroys the lives of two beautiful young people.
The narrator and his girlfriend, Candy, are heroin addicts. They try to get money to feed their habit any way they can, and intermittently try to quit. Their means of getting money becomes more and more desperate. Candy moves quickly from a $40 trick with a pawn broker to full time prostitution, first at a brothel, then as an escort, then on the street. Usually she supports their habit, but when the narrator feels motivated, he steals someone’s wallet to empty their bank accounts, or commits some petty theft. His schemes, and later the ease with which he learns drug manufacturing, hint at his wasted potential.
The couple’s health, not surprisingly, is also on a downward spiral: there’s one particularly cringe-inducing chapter on how the acidity of the heroin has corroded the narrator’s veins, forcing him to move away from his arms, down his legs to his feet, turning to increasingly small blood vessels, causing his limbs to swell, until finally he has to spend hours picking all over his body to shoot up.
But it’s not all horror and misery. There’s great love and tenderness between the main characters, and moments of dark humour – a hilariously disgusting genital crab farm, an incident with a magazine, a carotid artery and a needle with a detachable head.
The secret world of drugs and addicts is captured in fascinating detail: the lingo, the paraphernalia, the procedure of using, the science of manufacturing, the politics of dealers.
But while the book is extremely readable due to the depiction of the external world, it is its capturing of the internal world that makes it extraordinary.
The reasons why the couple fall into addiction are never made clear. Yes, they are implied to have family issues, but scant detail is provided, and this is a good thing: if we were told that they had suffered, say, childhood sexual abuse, it would be all too easy to dismiss them as products of their environment, and this would take away from their sympathetic natures. Instead, the narrator and Candy have the same basic human failings as all of us, horribly magnified by drugs and addiction.
Even though most readers can’t relate to drug addiction, it’s a common human trait to seek escape in oblivion, and succumb to compulsive behaviour. And just as it is easy to put off things that we consider important in our lives, Candy and the narrator are engaged in the constant self-deception of extending deadlines to quit, believing that there will be some perfect time to kick the habit just around the corner.
The narrator holds superstitions that he uses to evade responsibility and affirm his habit. “It’s like there’s a mystical connection between heroin and bad luck, with some built-in momentum factor”, he says, one of the many examples of Davies’ ability to communicate delusion that is transparent to the reader.
The narrator chooses Candy as his partner because she affirms what is important to him:
“Then, a couple of days later she says, can I have more? I say, sure, and start to lay out a line for her. She says, not that way, I want to try it your way.”
“At that moment my heart moves and I feel so in love I want to cry. I know what’s going on. What she is saying is, I don’t want second-best. She’s sensed already that if snorting is good then this will be infinitely better. I can feel the deep tugging of a kindred spirit, a twin.”
Throughout, the characters somehow maintain a warped set of values (“Non-using dealers, of course, were the scum of the earth,” the narrator says, comically) which they inevitably break.
Caught up in the daily grind of having to feed an all-consuming addiction, anything becomes justifiable. Each degradation elicits a monstrous under-reaction, and everything is rationalised by drugs. To repress their horror at their lives, they need more drugs, which leads to further degradation. And underneath it all, a growing, subterranean rage and despair that the reader knows will inevitably and tragically explode to the surface.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2006, Davies said:
“The book is essentially a completely claustrophobic interior monologue in which, in a sense, even the title is ironic and the character Candy is a two-dimensional approximation of the narrator’s desires, obsessions and his inability to see the truth at any deep level …The focus had to shift around from inside his eyes to the two of them.”
It makes for interesting reading to consider the book in this light, especially the character’s conversations as they struggle to resist the tidal pull of addiction.
This was Davies’ first novel, before which he published poetry, and he has stated in interviews that he wrote the chapters seperately and out of sequence. This has resulted in a book without a typical plot structure; instead, the story steadily descends into darker and darker territory, before plateauing into a tenuous recovery. The ending is a bit of a fizzer, perhaps intentionally, because it mirrors the tiredness of the narrator: with his marriage, his addiction, and his whole misguided life.
There is hope at the end of Candy, but if you’re not a person who can read taxing stories, this might not be the novel for you. To me, it was so good that I wanted to cook it up and inject it straight into my veins. Inappropriate? Recommended.
References and recommended links
A review of Candy by Luke Davies by Magdalena Ball
Candy man: an author’s journey from page to screen by Garry Maddox, smh.com.au, 4 May 2006
Interview: You did not read Faulkner! by Sophie Cunningham, 2008