Poet of Celebrity Addiction

A former hard-living musician, novelist Tony O’Neill has a new book out that mocks the celebrity rehab world of L.A. He speaks to Nick Antosca about Dr. Drew and writing terrible sex scenes.

08.25.10 9:33 PM ET

Writer Tony O'Neill has strong feelings about celebrity rehab guru Dr. Drew. "At least a drug dealer gives an addict something tangible for his or her money," O'Neill says. "All Dr. Drew gives them is bullshit.... He parades people around on his TV shows, pretending to pity them and sympathize with them, when in reality his m.o. is to catch a celebrity at their lowest point, talk them into doing something demeaning for money, and exploit it for his own ends. In a way, he’s not much different from a guy who offers a strung-out teenage girl a bag of smack in exchange for a blowjob."

I met O’Neill, a prolific novelist (and co-writer of celebrity memoirs), at Yaffa Café in New York’s East Village to talk about his new novel Sick City, which came out from Harper Perennial in July. Originally from northern England, O’Neill has black hair with the slightest hint of gray, a thick black mustache, and large, earnest eyes that dart back and forth with the manic watchfulness of a former dope fiend.

“When I handed the book in,” O’Neill says, “my agent told me—‘Tony—this book contains the most singularly disgusting sex scene I have ever read. Ever.’”

In Sick City, O’Neill looks beyond the humid and claustrophobic confines of a junkie’s world to satirize the celebrity rehabilitation craze and the fetishization of famous disgraces. Jeffrey and Randall, the novel’s junkie protagonists, meet in a Los Angeles rehab clinic run by Dr. Mike, a preening, press-whoring celebrity therapist who reads like a grotesque hybrid of Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew.

“I find that his whole take on addiction is pretty much bullshit, and typical of someone who has never experienced it first hand,” he says, expanding on his loathing of Dr. Drew. “If you listened to Dr. Drew, anyone who smokes, drinks, fucks, shops, gambles or anything else on a regular basis is an addict of some kind. Well, of course, people like Dr. Drew have to pathologize every behavior, because it keeps their pockets lined. They don’t want you strung out on street drugs—they want you strung out on therapy.”

Sick City: A Novel. By Tony O’Neill. 384 pages. Harper Perennial. $13.99.

In the past decade, O’Neill has written extensively about his own experiences as a junkie. After a career as a musician (he played with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, among others), he disappeared into a self-medicated haze, and his first two novels, Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile are thinly fictionalized accounts of his misadventures while married to the needle. He also co-wrote Hero of the Underground, ex-NFL player Jason Peter’s bestselling memoir of addiction, and Neon Angel, Cherie Curie’s rock memoir that recently became the movie The Runaways, starring Dakota Fanning as Curie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett.

When Sick City’s Jeffrey and Randall stumble into possession of a legendary Hollywood sex film—a home movie starring Sharon Tate, Steve McQueen, and Yul Brynner—they figure they can sell it to the right collector for enough cash to buy half the poppy fields in Afghanistan. The complications to their plan—involving scenes of mayhem and disgrace that rival Irvine Welsh’s most fervid daydreams—provide the structure on which O’Neill hangs his satire.

Now married with a daughter, O’Neill lives a calmer life than he once did, but he grows animated and speaks quickly—his unique accent mashing Queens with Los Angeles and the U.K.—when he flashes back to the bizarre experiences which inform this book and which transformed him from a rural British kid to a weathered Angeleno.

“I came out to L.A. when I was 18 years old. I was on tour with a band. I met a girl at a party, tried meth for the first time and BAM, three sleepless days and nights later I was in Vegas with a new wife, and I knew that I wasn’t going home again. Cities make a special impression on you when you’re 18 years old. You’re like a fuckin’ sponge.”

Indeed, the city is as much a character in the novel as Jeffrey and Randall and their various nemeses. James Frey, whose Bright Shiny Morning was a hyper-ambitious cross-section of Los Angeles, called Sick City “one of the best books written about L.A. in a long time” and said O’Neill could be “our generation’s Jim Thompson.”

O’Neill told me, “I’ve stayed in obscene glittering mansions in L.A., and I’ve been a penniless dope fiend there, sleeping in cars and living in short-let transient hotels with hookers and pimps on either side of me and roaches the size of kittens…. I didn’t just leave L.A., I fucking fled there with the devil at my heels. I feel the same way about L.A. as I do about heroin. It was bad for me. It nearly destroyed me. But I couldn’t get enough of it at the time, so it couldn’t be all bad, could it?”

If O’Neill’s signature subject is addiction, he has a particular specialty in the kind of disastrous sex scenes that can result from its excesses. O’Neill recently wrote a cringingly grotesque short story called “Bill Bailey” that was released as a chapbook by the memorably named Black Bile Press; the story climaxes with one of the most off-putting descriptions of a sexual encounter I can remember reading in recent years.

Only the one at the end of Sick City is worse. It involves a backpack full of electrical cables, a “large black mole with a single hair sticking out of it,” and a terrifying bride-to-be with “short, thick legs, which seemed to narrow down into points like pig trotters.”

“When I handed the book in,” O’Neill says, “my agent told me—‘Tony—this book contains the most singularly disgusting sex scene I have ever read. Ever.’”

And, dare I ask, do his horrifying sex scenes draw as directly from experience as his depictions of drug use and dependency?

“Sex—for me—should be an extension of my character’s neurosis,” he says. “It’s difficult to read a book—or write one—with a hard on, you know? Bad sex is much more exciting and fun to write about than good sex… Drawn from my own experiences? Well, I have either known—or been—all of the characters in this book at one point in my life. I spent most of my 20s amongst fellow dope fiends, prostitutes, Hollywood freaks, drug dealers, gang bangers, psychotic musicians, and crazies of every flavor. That’s as much as I’ll say on that subject.”

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Nick Antosca is the author of the novels Midnight Picnic (Word Riot Press, 2009) and Fires (Impetus Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Nerve, Hustler, The New York Sun, Identity Theory, The Barcelona Review, The Huffington Post, and others. He was born in New Orleans and lives in New York, and his blog is Brothercyst.