The Best Stoner Novels
In honor of the hallowed holiday of 4/20, Sam Munson, author of November Criminals, picks out the best novels, from Invisible Man to Wonder Boys, featuring marijuana and its users.
There's no shortage of chemical vices appearing and even starring in literature. Hardly a surprise: Writers are, in the end, very childish, and children like pleasure very much, and clever old Homo sapiens has been in the pharmaceutical business probably since the Iron Age. Thus, it's easy to find any number of mind-altering chemical distillates floating around, especially in the West—part of our general abundant opulence, you might say, like organic carrots or stores selling pirate paraphernalia for adults. And yet there's something missing from pharmacological lit that you might not even notice at first. Survey a friend's library, a friend with decent taste, and you'll find a lot of substances. Booze: Absolutely. Acid: But of course. Heroin: Do you even need to ask? But what about weed? Where are its literary advocates? I mean, I can understand why it lags in this particular field—it doesn't fill you with elation or crushing misery like booze, or seriously warp your perception like hallucinogens, or send you off into comatose states of null bliss like heroin. It doesn't even turn you into a euphoric moron wearing parachute pants, like MDMA.
Being high is just not all that remarkable—less suited to literature, our culture suggests, and more suited to movies (some of which, like The Big Lebowski, undoubtedly the most penetrating treatment of the subject, are serious and subtle works of art), television, horrible jam bands (yep, they still exist), rap videos, and various effusions on YouTube. And yet, if you look closely, it's there, it's leached into literature. And if its place is less certain than, say, alcohol in the work of Richard Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or heroin in the writings of William S. Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, James Carroll, and Irvine Welsh, it has achieved a certain, uh, eminence vert (sorry). Forthwith a few examples, in no particular order of eminence. But first a caveat: This list is NOT COMPLETE. So if I fail to mention some novel you regard as canonical here, just leave a comment.
The Savage DetectivesBy Roberto Bolaño
This is the book that established Bolaño's international reputation and its main narrative thread concerns a search undertaken by two young exiles for a poet they admire. These two searchers, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (an alter ego who pops up from time to time in Bolaño's work), fund their activities, as well as an avant-garde literary magazine, by selling high-quality weed—with the euphonious name Acapulco Gold—to Mexico city's students and artists. The magazine's title? Lee Harvey Oswald.
Wonder BoysBy Michael Chabon
Professor Grady Tripp's life is a mess—his second book has metastasized into a thousand-page monstrosity, he's screwing his boss's wife, and he's slowly beginning to realize that the young writer he's taken under his wing is, though extremely talented, a bit of a sociopath. Self-medication with weed? Hell yes! He quits at the book's end, as fatherhood looms, and the prospect of serious, permanent failure. How redemptive!
King SuckermanBy George Pelecanos
During a sweltering summer in our nation's capital, small-time pot dealer Dimitri Karras stumbles on a bag filled with drug money, and then has to go to the mattresses defending himself against the band of psychotic rurals who plan to take it from him. (The book draws its title from a blaxploitation movie much beloved by the antagonists.) Hazy with vintage '70s atmospherics, smoke not least among them, King Suckerman is an early-career classic from Pelecanos, D.C.'s master of intelligent, real-as-can-be noir.
Invisible ManBy Ralph Ellison
The protagonist of Ellison's masterwork may love sloe gin, but he also has a transformative experience with weed while listening to Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue" at bone-shaking volume in his underground lair. He comes to a Nietzschean conclusion: Great music and chemical intoxicants belong to the same existential class, implements of the Dionysian. (Although he does eventually give up ganja.) A nearly-infinite number of adolescents have repeated this experiment, with continually worsening music and far less impressive philosophical results.
Budding ProspectsBy T.C. Boyle
Marijuana takes a central role, here: Boyle's yarn recounts the patient, clumsy, farcically funny and ultimately failed efforts of three modern-day pot sharecroppers, who supervise a large farm through a growing season in exchange for a cut of the notional profits. (Hence, perhaps, the book's subtitle: "A Pastoral.") Boyle denies his protagonist Felix (a name rich with irony, what with it being Latin for "happy" or "lucky" and all ) and his idiot friends any financial success, but does suggest that all is not completely lost for this young man with the blackest of black thumbs.
Artificial ParadisesBy Charles Baudelaire
One of the first (and still one of the best) memoirs of drug use, prominently features hashish. Baudelaire was, despite being kept on a humiliating financial leash by his stepfather for much of his life, a hard-living dandy, seeking always to exorcise his demon l'ennui. Artificial Paradises, infused with the same mordant wit and close concern for the extreme life of the senses and the vast, vague, powerful tides of our personality as his poetry, documents some of the most powerful of the deliberate derangements sought by Baudelaire and his colleagues through wine, laudanum, opium, and other means. Written, in part, as a response to Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater, this book displays a strength and strangeness all its own.
How to finish? I'm not sure. Wishing people a happy 4/20 seems juvenile, so I won't. But the next time you hear someone extolling the virtues of weed, and your natural inclination to dismiss them as a worthless, confused hippie begins to stir, think of these books and certain others and blah blah blah blah blah, etc. You know what I mean.
Sam Munson's first novel, The November Criminals, will be published in April by Doubleday.