I have always been attracted to memoirs, as good ones usually give you more bang for your buck than any work of fiction. My favorites are the ones written by criminals, druggies, and general social outcasts. They usually did not initially set out to become professional writers, but they all lived real lives and had real stories to tell. They are the adventures and struggles of people who couldn’t help but go against the grain, but who wore their hearts, even if they were cold, on their sleeves. For me, there are too many to list, I could write forever about Charles Bukowski alone…but for no nonsense fuckery, these are my five favorites.
Junky by William Burroughs
Junky was the book that started it all. When it was first published in 1953 as "Junkie", it was doubled up with a book about a narcotics agent to help balance it all out. Although it was largely considered a cheap sensationalized paperback upon its initial limited release, Burroughs did not write it in a sensationalistic manner. The stories were written with such a dry, yet revealing tone, that when I’d first read it as a teenager, I found its honesty to be a revelation. I'd never read anything detailing aspects of addiction and homosexuality in such a matter of fact way. And when you put it in the context of its time, it may as well have been written by someone from another planet. Although I suspect the publisher may have intended it for it to be received as a cautionary tale, the beauty of it lays in the fact that Burroughs offers absolutely no apologies. He’s also occasionally funny as hell. Even when he was clearly not having such a great time of it, especially during his time in New Orleans and Mexico, at no point does he attempt to entice any kind of empathy from his readers. And while it’s been sixty-five years since he first described his experiences with opiates, his portrayal of addiction still remains equally true today. The world may have changed…but junk is forever.
You Can’t Win by Jack Black
You can’t mention Junky without bringing up the book that was one of Burroughs biggest inspirations, and that, of course, is “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black. You Can’t Win is the autobiography of a burglar with a penchant for opium and riding the rails. While Black clearly lacked the sophistication of other more notorious thieves like Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, or Willie Sutton, (who also both wrote great autobiographies), Black’s descriptions of traveling around, cracking safes, and crashing at hobo camps—when he wasn’t getting locked up—paint a much more colorful picture of the criminal underworld as it existed in late 19th century America. Somehow, despite a few stints in prison, Jack Black expresses a sense freedom that would be almost impossible to imagine trying to capture now.
Pimp: The Story of My Life by Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck
Pimp is just about the heaviest book ever written. As the title suggests, the book is about a pimp who got into the game in the mid 1930’s. Although pimping has probably been around in one form or another since the dawn of humanity, no one has ever laid out all of the subtle intricacies of the profession better than Iceberg. It wasn’t easy being a black man in America in those days, and to not only be able to survive, but thrive in Iceberg’s environment required a special set of skills that few men could ever stomach, let alone acquire. According to Slim—the cold, calculating life of a pimp required just the right balance of tenderness and violence to be successful…and there was a reason why he was one of the best. Although it’s almost impossible (for most of us) to have any empathy for a man who exploits women’s bodies and minds for personal gain, there are good reasons why many rappers regard this book along the same lines as the bible. And even if you can’t allow yourself to justify his profession, it is impossible to dismiss Iceberg’s insights into capitalism, race, psychology and more than anything else: the nature of man.
Underworld of the East by James S. Lee
Underworld of the East is such an amazing book, it’s almost hard to believe it was actually ever written, let alone released. Lee was an engineer from Yorkshire who left the UK to work in India at the turn of the last century. Written at a time when there were none of the same social and criminal stigmas regarding drugs, Lee decided to indulge in them all. Morphine, cocaine, hash, and a few currently unknown drugs that most of us would probably love to get our hands on. Add to this the backdrop of all the different ports in Asia, with their red-light districts, and opium dens, and it’s enough to make anyone feel nostalgic for a world that has long since disappeared. For a British subject during the Victorian era, Lee was well ahead of his time…and the best part about all of it, is how he not only lets us in on his journey of self-discovery, but the enthusiasm he exudes while explaining all the virtues of a living a better life through chemistry…
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
There is little I can say about Fear and Loathing that hasn’t already been said. Fear and Loathing was a game changer that still has not been surpassed. It not only changed the way people thought about writing, it changed the way people thought. Period. Forget about all of the stuff about Gonzo journalism, all the drugs that were consumed, and all of the remnants of the 60’s generation—and you still have a book that is perhaps more relevant today then it would be at any other time in our nation’s history. The heart of the story for me, is about the evolution of humanity and the cold war being fought for the soul of America. Hunter was not only detailing the “us and them” world of the Vietnam era, but a battle that is still being fought today. The right-wing-conservative-Christian faction of the country are still flexing their muscles, and still trying to essentially control the dialogue about patriotism and morality. But as Hunter so eloquently said, “Lord…the final incredible truth is that I am not guilty. All I did was take your gibberish seriously…and…my primitive Christian instincts have made me a criminal.” The honest truth is—all of the progressive freaks, the dreamers, the wanderers and seekers, all of the social outcasts and social warriors—are all still just searching for the same thing…a place where we are not marginalized, criminalized, or relegated to feel like foreigners in our own country. We all just want to feel like we’ve finally made it home, and for me, there would be no place more comfortable to live— than in the sanctuary of Hunter’s world.