Peter Selgin has published an award-winning collection of short fiction, a novel, a memoir, a wide range of essays, and two books on craft. His work has been featured in Best American Essays and Glimmer Train, and he currently teaches creative writing at Georgia College. This essay, about Cain’s Book (Grove Press, 1960), Alexander Trocchi’s controversial novel largely centered around his own heroin addiction, first appeared on Selgin’s blog, and Selgin’s patent convictions about the book compelled us to share the essay with our audience. Trocchi’s work, though experiencing a resurgence in popularity (Cain’s Book was recently re-released), has largely been dismissed, due in part to the author’s destructive drug use. Here, Selgin details Trocchi’s true thematic intentions, and redeems this “minor masterpiece” as much more than another puff of junkie lit. Enjoy.
—Roger Sollenberger, Deputy Editor
Like rock stars, some novels and novelists are eaten alive by their most ardent fans. Embraced by a severely circumscribed subculture, their best performances are turned from works of art into manifestoes, or worse, Bibles, and cease to be read by ordinary people.
Scottish-born Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, his one intentionally literary performance (unlike Helen and Desire, an earlier book written for and published by Olympia, the erotic press), is a good example.
Written by a heroin user who made no bones of his addiction—indeed, who embraced it as part of his “craft and sullen art”—no sooner did Cain’s Book hit the shelves at Brentano’s than it was hailed by addicts less as a masterwork of narrative prose than as the vindication of a lifestyle. Like William S. Burroughs’ earlier Junkie, the book was seen as a poetic license to shoot up.
In the form of a somewhat arbitrary journal, the book (for its own sake, for now, I’ll back off calling it a novel) chronicles an unspecified period in the life of one Joe Necchi, junkie, who captains a gravel scow for the Mac Asphalt Company in New York Harbor: the perfect junkie job, since it requires little training or skill and even less effort. The book opens with a description of its narrator watching the sky above Flushing Bay turn pink. “The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted,” Trocchi writes, capping an almost homey first paragraph. Then, on a line all its own:
“Half an hour ago, I gave myself a fix.”
Thus within two paragraphs Cain’s Book’s two poles are fixed: the soft-lit, contemplative, introspective world of the brooding poet at one extreme, and the sharp, angular, staccato world of junkiedom at the other. One hesitates to label these poles “positive” and “negative,” since Trocchi would surely argue against such polarization. He would instead claim that the junkie’s world is one and the same as that of the poet; that both extremes arise out of the same edifying oblivion—that rare “here-and-now-ness” attainable only under the influence of certain soluble narcotics, with a little hash or weed or Benadryl tossed in now and then for good measure. The book goes on to describe, in extravagant and even loving detail, the act of shooting-up, after which the narrator lies contemplating the movements of a fly on the wall as it “worries” the dry corpse of another fly.
All of which may seem tedious but isn’t, thanks in large measure to the quality of Trocchi’s prose, which rarely slips beneath the level of poetry. Soon afterwards the narrative drifts into a meditation on the state of the mind under the drug, and from there into its myriad virtues, chief among these being that it empties the mind of such nagging, impudent questions as “What the fuck am I doing here?”, transporting its beneficiaries to “another region, a painless, theoretical region, a play region, surprising, fertile, and unmoral.” In time we come to realize that the narrator seeks more than mere oblivion: he seeks total emancipation from the mean demands of civilization. Specifically, he seeks to avoid two things: questioning his life, and, above all, working.
So we arrive at the book’s real theme, which is not heroin or drug addiction but the illegitimacy of the Protestant work ethic, and—beyond that—the insulting indecency of the whole concept of “work” itself. This is the heart and soul of Trocchi’s book, a theme that appears to have been lost on its junkie adherents. Joe Necchi thinks work a bad idea and a far worse habit, worse, to be sure, than junk, which, though it may take possession of its subscriber’s every last waking thought and desire, at least doesn’t rob him of his primal nature—the underlying assumption here being that a man’s primal nature is not toward work, but toward nodding off and watching sunsets and flies.
Cain’s Book’s rambling, fragmented, disjointed and arbitrary form is itself a testimony against rigor: I’ll write my book if I please, when I please, any damn way I please. Transitioning merely by means of sheer strips of white space, narrative gives way to philosophy, or a random quote from the narrator’s journal—as if what we’re reading isn’t already random enough in essence. Part of Trocchi’s “plan” (if that word applies to such a radically undetermined performance) and his genius consists of flaunting his total contempt for ambition. Like Picasso painting bulls in the dark with a candle flame or Nijinsky dancing naked in a Baltic hotel room, he shows us how free an artist can be. Trocchi knows he can write; he doesn’t have to prove it (though he does, in several brilliant set pieces, including a warmly funny reminiscence of his neurotically obsessed father and a terrifyingly beautiful depiction of a storm at sea—as good as anything in Conrad or Melville). Rather than satisfy the dry thirst for a crisp, clean narrative, he slakes his own thirst for artistic expression, writing only when inspiration seizes hold of him, or—bribed by a keen publisher to the tune of so many dollars per manuscript page—when in want of his next fix.
The result is a book that, however formless, is never without poetry and vigor. Even when waxing didactic—as when railing against our judicial system’s fanatical pursuit of its drug addicts—Trocchi never loses his poetic verve. But Cain’s Book is no diatribe, nor is it meant to be a manifesto. It is in fact a novel in the best sense of that word, one that shapes narrative in a new, untried, risky way, unlike so many books today that—apart from cosmetic innovations like doing away with paragraph indents—take no authentic risks, that read as if vying, if not for Oprah, then for the Writer’s Workshop Seal of Approval.
But lest anyone jump to the conclusion I praise Trocchi merely for being an iconoclast or renegade, I offer the following evidence that he was, first and foremost, a writer:
I was standing in the wind, clutching at the doorway of my shack, the sea falling steeply away under my narrow catwalk, and for a moment I had the impression of tottering at the night edge of a flat world. Then I was going down like you go down on a rollercoaster, braced in the doorway, the cabin light flooding out round about me as though it would project me into the oncoming blackness. Black, then indigo as the horizon moved down like a sleek shutter from somewhere high above and flashed below the level of my eyes. A moment later the sea rose with a sucking sound and slid like a monstrous lip on to my quarterdeck about my ankles. It was icy cold. At that moment, staring down at it as it swirled round about the battened hatches, it occurred to me that I might be about to die.
Trocchi, who remained an unrepentant heroin user for the rest of his life and died in 1984, never wrote another book, having with Cain’s Book jettisoned his last scraps of discipline. In the end, as much as or more than his drug addiction, his philosophy did him in as an artist.
“Love and work,” Freud tells us, aren’t merely fundamental to our mental well-being; they are cornerstones of our humanity. Alexander Trocchi, rebelling against the latter, annihilated the former—his love for writing, his poetry, his passion. With what turned out to be a final act of self-immolation, he left behind a minor masterpiece, the smoldering heap of poetic cinders and ashes that is Cain’s Book, the burnt offering of a singular soul.
Peter has published an award-winning collection of short stories, a novel, a memoir, a wide range of essays, and two books on craft. He teaches at Georgia College.