The junkie in literature: a reading list starting with ‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

monkey-gripFor whatever reason people do things, I’ve become hooked (pardon the pun) on the idea of reading a wide range of books about heroin addicts and their place in literature.

The heroin junky seems an enigmatic and romanticised character, living by their wits on the edges of society and always in the grip of their addiction.

There is a fascination with them in literature, at odds, in a way, with how one sees the junky in the real world – usually the beggar in unwashed rags sleeping in an alleyway.

The junky in fictionalised accounts is often the artist, or the poet, or at the very least someone who has lived an interesting life.

My interest in this subject was sparked after reading “Monkey Grip”, a celebrated Australian novel by Helen Garner.

Monkey Grip tells the story of Nora, a single-mum living in Melbourne in the mid-1970s who falls in love with a blue-eyed junkie called Javo. The title of the book refers to their relationship, which despite Nora’s attempts to pull away is as tight as a monkey grip.

(A REVIEW OF MONKEY GRIP IS AT THE END OF THIS POST)

I’ve compiled a reading list with the aim of writing an essay of sorts on the topic of “The Junky’s place in literature”.

Currently I am reading “Junky” by William S. Burroughs (1953), an autobiographical account of the writer’s life as an addict in the 1930 and 1940, which begins with Burroughs as user, pusher and petty thief in New York.

The other books on my list are:

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” by Thomas De Quincey (1821)

“Candy” by Luke Davis (1997)

“In My Skin” by Kate Holden (2005)

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

If any fellow bloggers or bookworms out there can recommend any other books that are about drug addiction or where one of the principal characters is a junkie, please drop me a line with the title and author – freshlyworded@gmail.com

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

Set in the inner city suburbs of Melbourne in the mid-1970s, Monkey Grip tells the story of single-mum Nora’s relationship with heroin addict and writer/actor Javo set against the back drop of house-sharing, addiction, loose parenting and easy sex.

Nora does not appear to have a job (Wikipedia says she does but not the novel I read) but lives a comfortable existence punctuated by bike rides to visit friends in other share houses, lots drinking and dope (marijuana) smoking, road trips, days spend lounging at the public swimming baths with her friends, afternoon naps, cups of tea in suburban kitchens, sitting on verandahs and musing, the retelling of dreams, and helping her friends through their different relationship and personal crises.

Critics of the novel have said it reads like the author’s personal diary entries and I can see what they’re getting at (Garner lived in Melbourne during this period of time and was most famously sacked as a teacher in 1972 for teaching sex education to her class of 13-year-olds, something that Nora would undoubtedly be comfortable doing).

Written as a first person narrative, Nora’s thoughts could be mistaken as those from her private  diary, as she tells of her daily comings and goings, what her friends might think of her relationships, describes dreams in vivid details and writes of Javo’s unannounced, but expected arrivals at her door at all hours of the day and night in various states of stoned-ness:

“Javo the monster. I don’t know him when he’s like this. I wish he would go away. He barely gives me the time of day. He blunders into my room at night, drops his great boots from waist height and crawls into bed beside me. This is not Javo. I know he doesn’t care and somehow neither do I. But I want him back, the way we used to be, when we loved each other with open hearts.”

Nora portrays Javo as charming and gentle and at other times, when the drugs have their grip on him as an uncaring, selfish bastard.

But this book is not so much about the nature of drug addiction but about what is like to be in love with a junkie.

Nora is both Javo’s lover as much as his anxious mother – nursing him when he suffers the sickness of withdrawal, allowing him to have his dole money paid into her bank account and worrying about where he may be and if he is safe. At the same time she is jealous and hurt when he confesses to sleeping with another woman.

At his worst he steals money, never keeps appointments and tells her about his relationship with other women. He is frequently unwashed, his skin breaking out into sores and scabs, his hair dishevelled – and yet she can never break free.

She constantly accuses him of being selfish, of only caring about his own needs and not noticing and caring about hers.

She says to him after he slips into his bed one night “very, very stoned”:

“When you came in here tonight I was right off my brick with the kids, and you didn’t even notice. You didn’t give a shit about what I have to do in my life.”

But she forgives him time and time again, pulled in by his piercing blue eyes, his charm and some sense of his kindness and generosity beneath the layers of his addiction.

But Nora is by no means an innocent. Despite having a young child (Gracie), she finds time to do a lot of drugs her self (weed), sleep through many afternoons, disappear to parties and on road trips (depositing Gracie with her friends) and invite men into her bed.

She is for ever questioning and undergoing a great deal of angst about her relationship to Javo.

Monkey Grip is considered a classic of Australian fiction. Indeed the front cover of the old copy I picked up at Basement Books in the city calls it “the best Australian novel of the year” for 1978.

But I have to say that I found the tale dragging at times and Nora annoying and not the most likeable of characters (a carefree, careless single mother who puts her own needs before those of her daughter).

She constantly agonises over Javo, resorting at numerous times to asking the ‘I Ching’ for relationship advise. The I Ching gives her sage advise, but she ignores it. The addiction to Javo is as strong as his to heroin.

Definitely worth reading. But in my opinion, Garner’s best works are her non-fiction books – Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the First Stone, which I highly recommend.

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3 thoughts on “The junkie in literature: a reading list starting with ‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

  1. Hi Larry

    I googled my way to your blog by accident while trying to learn more about Monkey Grip. I remember reading it a long time ago but I’ve mostly forgotten it. It’s now on the re-reading list.

    What I really opened this comment to say is this (it may seem controversial):

    I read WIlliam S Burroughs Junky, and Russel Brand’s Booky Wook back to back, out of sheer coincidence.
    Both are basically junkie autobiographies.
    But Brand’s book is a far better, deeper and more honest portrayal of addiction. Burroughs writing is good, and has period interest, but the minute you know this lightly veiled memoir omits the part where he kills his own wife, it’s hard to have faith in it.
    Brand may seem more shallow – on the surface – but I suspect he is in fact a better writer than Burroughs, more interested in the depths of human psychology, and less prone to giving his fiction a veneer.

    Like

    1. I must read Naked Lunch again and also the Russell Brand book. I never realised Burroughs killed his wife – apparently by accident in a game. But that is quite an omission. I am actually a big fan of Russell Brand, he seems to be super intelligent. About to start reading Scar Tissue by Anthony Keidis of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Missing Fairfax at all?

      Like

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