Clune’s gripping account of life inside the heroin underground reads like no other, as we enter the mind of the addict and navigate the world therein.
How do you describe an addiction in which the drug of choice creates a hole in your memory, a “white out,” so that every time you use it is the first timenew, fascinating, and vivid? Michael W. Clune’s original, edgy yet literary telling of his own story takes us straight inside such an addictionwhat he calls the Memory Disease.With black humor and quick, rhythmic prose, Clune’s gripping account of life inside the heroin underground reads like no other, as we enter the mind of the addict and navigate the world therein. Clune whisks us between the streets of Baltimore and the university campus, revealing his dual life while a graduate student teaching literature. We spiral downward with Clunefrom nodding off in an abandoned row-house with a one-armed junkie and a murderous Jesus freak to scanning a crowded lecture hall for an enemy with a gun.After experiencing his descent into addiction, we go with him through detox, treatment, and finally into recovery as he returns to his childhood home and to the world of color. It is there that the Memory Disease and his heroin-induced white out begins to fade.
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About the Author
Michael W. Clune is an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University and is the author of a scholarly book on American literature published by Cambridge University Press.
Read an Excerpt
In that bare front room at Dominic’s there is a trembling joy in the air. The thick sun of June gets trapped, pools, and grows cloudy. Proto-organisms form in the cloud of wood-color, heat, and sheet-light. I’m full of angels who fasten their lips and wings and hands to Dominic’s body, until he looks like a beach a thick flock of seagulls has landed on. By the time we get to the kitchen he doesn’t even look human.
The human form is not one I’m too committed to anyway. As Henry said once, I have a vein that starts in Baltimore and ends in Philadelphia. And here’s Henry. One arm. The missing arm is like an anchor dropped in the ocean of what he should look like and doesn’t. It keeps him anchored. He has a high-pitched granny’s voice.
“Hey Mike we was just trynna think about that other thing for you.” Dom sits heavily down in a chair, his neck goes out like a slinky and his head is just way way back.
“It’s good to see you Henry. Man is it hot out today!”
This is the part I think I need to remember. Or I need to forget. It’s kind of hard to put together. Addiction is a memory disease. I was there at Dominic’s. I remembered one hour ago, sitting up in bed and thinking about renewing my driver’s license. I remembered six months ago, writing notes to myself in scary big letters and taping them all over the apartment so when I woke up I would see them. “No dope today!”
“So Mike, we can’t get you into any of those Oxy’s.” I tuned back in. “But you might want to think. You might want to see about the white tops. Cause we can get those. We can get plenty of them. They’re cheap. And they’re good. Matter of fact.” He closed his eyes. I saw a half-empty white-topped vial on the corner of the table. “They’re pretty good.”
Henry said it twice. In this kind of situation language is superfluous. Pure waste, a luxury. We both knew I couldn’t give a damn about those Oxys. White tops. Wishes begin in white. Jesus is white. Madonna is white. The queen is white. The moon is white. The white tops are white. A picture starts out as a white space. A white space is a picture of the future. The future poses, the camera snaps, the picture is pure white. Dominic’s white teeth in his gaping red snoring mouth, like a kind of teasing promise: inside it’s all white. Cut Dominic in two and you’ll find white inside. I bet when they cut off Henry’s arm it was pure white in the middle.
In Baltimore that summer the best heroin was sold in little glass vials with white stoppers. White tops. The color of the stopper was like a brand. If it was good, its reputation would spread. (“Where’s Dom?” “Dom’s dead.” “What was he doing?” “White tops.” “Who’s got ‘em?” “Fathead.” “Where’s Fathead?”) Eventually dealers with inferior product would start using the good color, and then the people with the hot dope would have to change to red or blue stoppers. It was a cycle. I’d been off the stuff for almost six months, but as soon as I saw that empty white-top, I got a funny, destiny feeling.
You might think the whiteness of the white tops isn’t that important. After all, over the past few years I’d bought red tops, blue tops, black tops, and even yellow tops. Of course, the drug itself is often white, but it can also be brown, and the white is really just an effect of the cut. But the first stuff I ever did was in a vial with a white top, and its whiteness showed me dope’s magic secret.
The secret is that the power of dope comes from the first time you do it. It’s a deep memory disease. People know the first time is important, but mostly they’re confused about why. Some think addiction is nostalgia for the first mind-blowing time. They think the addict’s problem is wanting something that happened a long time ago to come back. That’s not it at all. The addict’s problem is that something that happened a long time ago never goes away. To me, the white tops are still as new and as fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops. There’s a deep rip in my memory.
Dope never gets old for addicts. It never looks old. It never looks like something I’ve seen before. It always looks like nothing I’ve ever seen. I kind of stare. I’m kind of shocked.
“White tops, Henry? Really?” It’s always the first time I’ve heard of it, the first time I’ve seen it, every day, forever. Take a look at your shoe. Your television. Your car. Your girlfriend. Now compare that sight with the first sight.
You see? When you first get a new car you notice everything about it. The color is so beautiful, so shiny, so deep, so intense. After a few weeks you hardly see it. After a few months, there’s a sense in which you don’t see it at all.
That doesn’t happen with dope. Dope never gets old. It never gets familiar. It’s always new. It’s a deep memory disease. This disease is much stranger and simpler than nostalgia. With nostalgia, you see a thing. The thing triggers a memory of a good time. Then you start to want that good time to come back. That’s complex. It’s a multi-stage process.
Now watch what happens to the addict. I’m sitting there at Dom’s, minding my business. Henry’s kind of talking, I’m kind of listening. Then I see a white-topped vial. Wow. I stare at it. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. I know I’ve seen it ten thousand times before. I know it only leads to bad things. I know I’ve had it and touched it and used it and shaken the last particles of white from the thin deep bottom one thousand times. But there it is. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. The first time I encountered dope isn’t somewhere else, it isn’t in the past. It’s right over there. It’s on the table
It was three months later. I knocked on Dom’s door. Rain was pouring from heavy brown clouds. He opened, looked furtively around, then stood aside as I went in. He was holding his gun. “I got troubles, Mike.” I nodded.
“Fathead says Dom fucked up the package,” Henry squittered. Dom squittered. A rope of spit hung from his lip. “But it sure was nice Henry,” he said.
“They say if you was to lay out a man’s veins all in a straight line they’d go from Baltimore to Philly,” said Henry, “And old Henry’d be one of them old-time railroad workers, driving a spike in every three feet.”
“And I’ve been working on the railroad too,” said Dom, “All the live-long day.”
I gave Dom eighty dollars in folded tens and twenties. That’s what it took, day in day out, just to keep that white light shining. And if it ever dimmed the devils came out. Now the white light was so dim they were sticking their little paws and claws for whole seconds inside me, like children testing the water at the beach. The day before I’d bitten down too hard on a forkful of potatoes and taken a big chip out of my front tooth. I guess I’d thought the potatoes would be harder. I didn’t used to make that kind of mistake.
Dom took the money and Henry opened the closet door. He moved a coat from over a hole in the floor, and pulled a bundle out of the hole. Then he pulled five little white-top vials out of the bundle, and tossed them to me. I got shy with desire. Ran to the bathroom. When I got out of the bathroom the dimming white light was bright again inside me and the devils were burning to death in it.
When I got out of the bathroom Fathead was standing in the hall between Dom and
Henry with a big hand over each of their shoulders.
“Hey there Mike!” He said brightly. He moved his hand to Henry’s neck and gave it a little squeeze.
“Ow, Fathead!” Henry honked.
“I said hey there Mike.” I kind of stood there.
“Why don’t we go back into the kitchen where we can all sit down. You still have chairs back there, right Dom?” He gave Dom’s neck a friendly squeeze. Dom didn’t make a sound.
We all trooped back to the kitchen and sat down. Dom’s eyes were a little bloodshot, and his skin was even whiter than usual. Next to him, the off white aluminum refrigerator in the corner had a healthy human glow. I hadn’t noticed it before. It looked kind of friendly. Like it wanted to tell me something.
“Let me tell you how to get that permanent white, son,” I imagined it saying, “Just slip your head in here and have them boys shut the door real real hard on your neck.”
“That’s a real nice refrigerator, Dom,” I said.
“Thanks Mike,” Dom mumbled. His big black and blood eyes opened on me like dog’s mouths.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Fathead said, “You should see if you can sell that refrigerator Dom. Maybe you could get two hundred dollars for it. Then, if you found twenty other refrigerators and sold them for two hundred each, you could pay me what you owe.”
Fathead was a powerfully built white man about forty five years old. The previous winter he’d been released from prison after serving eleven years. He’d made some good contacts in prison, and when he got out he started dealing. He’d bunked with Dom in prison for a couple years. Dom had gotten out first, but they stayed in touch, and Fathead began fronting him packages the past spring. Fathead had a huge habit, which he’d had since his twenties.
He’d kept it going straight through his prison years. His pride was that he’d never once gone through withdrawal in the whole eleven years. This was a unique, almost impossible achievement. Even the street dealers from the nearby projects who had only contempt for addicts had respect for Fathead. He was also some kind of religious freak, which I think they also respected. I did too, kind of.
Now he prepared to shoot up in front of us. Almost lazily, demonstrating that this was pure fun, that the white fire was always burning strong in him and never went out.
“Men,” he said, emptying a large vial into a spoon, “There are two forces in this world. What are they Dom?”
“God and the creature,” Dom whispered through papery lips.
“God and the creature,” Fathead repeated. He closed his eyes. “And the creature, the creature must be induced.”
He lifted a lighter under the already blackened spoon. Then he paused. Kind of chuckled. His face took on a kind of grandfatherly softness.
“When you’ve got a little dog, and you want him to come in for the night, and you put a little dish of water at the back door, and he comes in, what is that?”
“Inducing the creature,” said Dom.
“How about when you don’t want the dog pissing all over the kitchen, and he does it, and you give him a little pinch?” He put down the lighter and circled Henry’s one arm with his hand. Henry flinched, but Fathead, after letting his hand rest around Henry’s arm for a couple seconds, just picked up the lighter again.
“Inducing the creature,” Dom whispered.
“I had a lot of time to think when I was locked up,” Fathead continued, drawing the fluid into the syringe through a cotton-ball. Microscopic white grains swam through that fluid, sometimes two of them would meet, and a second of time would spark out. I wondered what drugs did to you.
“I had a lot of time to think and read, and I’m a lot older now. And maybe I’m not an intellectual.” I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, and when Fathead had found this out he took to calling me an ‘intellectual.’
“And I hate intellectuals. Vanity. Listen to me.” He held the syringe before all of us. I could never have afforded a shot like that. It should have been in a museum. “Inducing the creature,” he said softly. He felt expertly along his neck till he found the pulsing vein. There was a black tattoo of a cross running down his neck and the vein pulsed along the cross. He slid in the needle and pressed down on the syringe.
His eyes closed for maybe ten seconds. Henry shifted uncomfortably. Fathead’s blue eyes shot open.
“The creature is induced to crawl. Induced to walk. Induced to beg. To soil itself or not to soil itself. The sin is not the inducement. That’s what those old Christians in the joint never understood.”
Dom nodded dully. Dom could probably have burned out a century with what was moving inside him at that moment. A stolen century. Stolen from Fathead.
“The sin is not the inducement,” Fathead continued. “That He may raise up the Lord casts down. Even unto the pit. This shit we think we’re doing here.” He laughed. “Another eye burns in our eye, another hand reaches through our hand. This.” He held up his thick, needle-scarred hand, “This is a glove.” He gazed thickly on it. “An abode for any spirit of the air. Every unrighteous and unclean spirit.”
He must have learned to talk that way in prison. Maybe in solitary. He didn’t really seem to be addressing us. When he talked like that you kind of saw a different side of talking. As if talking wasn’t meant for talking to people.
“And that’s what God is,” Fathead said. “When the creature is induced to crawl out of the creature. I’ve seen it myself. The whatever leaving his eyes, ‘dying.’ Crawling into the invisible world. A thousand spirits curled up in a spoon. You should see the spirit leaving a man’s face you can feel the room get thicker. I’ve done it myself. I’ll do it again.”
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Memory Disease
Chapter Two: The Castle
Chapter Three: The Future Lasts Forever
Chapter Four: Hello, Stripe
Chapter Five: Everything is Green
Chapter Six: White-Out
Chapter Seven: Funboys
Chapter Eight: Sorrow
Chapter Nine: Pleasure
Chapter Ten: Bloodless
Chapter Eleven: The People
Chapter Twelve: Love
Chapter Thirteen: 26th and California
Chapter Fourteen: Forgetfulness
Chapter Fifteen: Outside
Chapter Sixteen: Endless
What People are Saying About This
"Disturbing, brilliant, hilariousit's as if Proust had written Jesus' Son."
Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station.
“Raw, fresh, and relevant, White Out transcends the recent rash of addiction memoirs to meditate upon addiction as a disease of memory. Like an avalanche in a haunted Candy Land, this book is an onslaught of connections between past and present, between a blizzard of writing and the blank world of terminal addiction.”
Nancy D. Campbell, PhD, author of Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research and co-author of The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts
Excerpt from White Out by the author, Michael W. Clune, "I’m sitting there at Dom’s, minding my business. Henry’s kind of talking; I’m kind of listening. Then I see a white-topped vial. Wow. I stare at it. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. I know I’ve seen it ten thousand times before. I know it only leads to bad things. I know I’ve had it and touched it and used it and shaken the last particles of white from the thin, deep bottom one thousand times. But there it is. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. The first time I encountered dope isn’t somewhere else; it isn’t in the past. It’s right over there. It’s on the table.