The Boston Phoenix
November 11 - 18, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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How To Stop Time: Heroin From A To Z, by Ann Marlowe

Basic Books, 297 pages, $24

There is no finer example of the perils of uninhibited confession than Ann Marlowe's first book, How To Stop Time, a series of mini-essays disgorging the New York writer/critic's observations on her long romance with heroin.

Ostensibly, all the alphabetized entries ("dosages," "imperfections," "nose drops," "vertigo") take up the theme of addiction -- hence the subtitle. Indeed, fairly cerebral passages about the relation between consumerism and drug "copping" adequately reflect the sobering realities of capitalism, as well as the author's Harvard-grad-school pedigree. Marlowe is undoubtedly gifted at describing dope's ability to arrest time, especially when she speculates on the reason for the addict's repetitive habit: "The more your days resemble each other, the less you notice time's passage." But those are rare moments, and the book just as often meanders from vapid childhood memories to appraisals of former boyfriends and declarations of the author's favorite brand-name clothing, little of which would seem to have anything to do with the overarching subject.

Even these digressions sparkle in comparison to her execrable I-was-there-where-were-you reminiscences of the East Village indie-rock scene of the late '80s. Marlowe relates how she turned her back on counterculture ideology after leaving Harvard in the late '70s, became a successful investment banker on Wall Street during Reagan's watch, and then moved to the seedier East Village to escape all those stifling bourgeois comforts. Heroin was a ticket to taboo adventures, and "the scene" provided the requisite street cred. She laments the passing of this truly "underground" music community, snidely counterposing it to today's boho New York, which is "just another easily consumable entertainment option." Marlowe never tires of reminding the reader just how hip she was at just the right time -- snorting lines off bathroom stalls at now-defunct rock clubs, and so on -- and this elitist tone says much more than her "unexpungeable desire to shop at Bergdorf's" does about her privileged upbringing. So does her aversion to needles.

If that's not bad enough, Marlowe too often uses the memoir form to engage in painfully gratuitous self-analysis. She feels the need, for example, to disclose that her father had an incestuous relationship with his younger sister, a secret he shared with his wife long after they were married. "Did he tell her because he wanted to disgust her, or because he needed her understanding? Had either of my parents considered the impact of this revelation on my brother and on our relationship?"

Heroin has been the dark muse of many celebrated underground writers, but what radically differentiates Marlowe's book from the esteemed work of Thomas De Quincey, William S. Burroughs, and Alexander Trocchi -- or even the puerile diaries of Jim Carroll -- is its not-so-subtle insistence on the authenticity of its own truth-telling. That's a fatal mistake, even for a first-time author.

-- Damon Smith

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