scarecrow editorial

Monday, February 27, 2006


9: Almost Blue

It was A. Stevens from 3am Magazine who first referred to novelist Tony O'Neill as a potential "Nelson Algren for the 21st Century". I'm the second and I won't be the last. 3am Magazine having unearthed this extraordinary writer, you'll recall, long before current interest. Talk long ago was about Tony O'Neill's, then, forthcoming debut novel Digging the Vein. Well, we don't have to wait any longer as Digging the Vein has just been published over in America by New York's Contemporary Press. The heavily awaited British release is scheduled for July via the ultra cool publishers of Dan Fante - our very own Wrecking Ball Press.

The book is hard-hitting, yet beautifully written. The first paragraph speaks for itself in its clarity and splendour. It is also a paragraph that articulates many things:

"In Hollywood, the sun rises and stays up in the dirty sky pummelling you into submission for twelve hours or so before sinking behind the hills. Then everybody waits for it to start up all over again, up and down and up and down, futile and ceaseless. No seasons, no change, just relentless brightness. Nobody can ever escape the glare of the unforgiving sun. They just carry on, dumb with sunshine and desert heat, trying to find a darkened corner where they can conduct business that has no place in the daylight." [Pg 1].

With Digging the Vein Tony O'Neill does something quite special: he simply returns literature to its guttural, all too human, roots. He doesn't mystify his words; there is no higher, spiritual, cryptic language or elongated metaphor. Digging the Vein is a human fiction, a book ostensibly about misplacement and love, a book that is true in every sense of the word, penetrating into the deepest, darkest recesses of human existence without fuss, arrogance and obfuscation. There is no need for Tony O'Neill to try and dazzle us with his prose styling [a weight that seems to loom large in the forefront of many writers'mind]; he knows he will be heard, that every word counts, because he experienced each painstaking syllable. Digging the Vein is a book that, although steeped in its genre's traditions [think Burroughs’s Junky here], transcends this very same genre [think Burroughs’s Junky here also]. It is first and foremost a work of Literature - and I can honestly say this without my toes curling in disagreement. For instance:

"That afternoon developed into a two-day speed and heroin run. We cooked up some of my black tar heroin from McArthur Park next, and I was hit with my second revelation: the beautiful intensity of heroin pushed home into the mainline . . . I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I had turned a corner from which it would be very hard to come back, but when you’ve got heroin it doesn’t matter.” [Pg 71].

Good Literature always captures mood and setting correctly - it is never forced - it seeps into the book naturally. There are no secret tools that can force-feed any required milieu to a reader. When this happens it's like waving a rag flag at a bull. Readers spot such tricks immediately. Like all writers of his standard Tony O'Neill possesses voice. Digging the Vein, within its heart-felt pages, contains, above all else: VOICE. Tremendous, unpretentious voice; it is a voice so strong in its conviction it will reverberate within the cranium long after the book has been put down. Digging the Vein will haunt you and like other novels of a similar benchmark this unyielding power lays in the book's honesty [think Fante, Bukowski here]. Voice cannot be ignored when you read:

“Some hours later I was sitting on the can in a toilet cubicle within the casino, pushing a shot of heroin mixed with some crystal meth I had brought with me for emergencies into a large vein which curled around the side of my left forearm. The blood coagulated in the barrel, causing the needle to block with five mls. to go. I withdrew the needle and watched a thick trickle of blood run down my arm, drip-dripping off my wrist onto the floor impassively, as I started to sense the speed roaring around my blood, sending my heartbeat into the stratosphere. As was my ritual I pointed the needle at the gleaming white tiles around me and pushed the plunger hard with my thumb. Sometimes, if that shit was really blocked, the plunger would depress fully with a pop causing the blood and heroin inside to spray back around inside of the barrel. If it wasn’t too badly blocked, as happened this time, when the plunger popped, a thin spray of brown blood streamed from the needle and created a pretty pattern on any surface it hit. Beautiful. I felt like a dog marking its territory . . . Perfect. I was the junky Jackson Pollock.” [Pg 90-91].

These are exciting times. It seems the independents are burgeoning into a sizable force. Voices are being found; they're emerging from under the suffocating arms of our "life-style" obsessed society. And long, long, long may this continue. From the blurb:

“Tony O’Neill’s astonishing debut is based on his own experiences as an addict and sideman to acts as diverse as The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Kenickie, and Marc Almond. Through the eyes of his anonymous narrator, see what few tourists ever will: the needle exchanges, methadone clinics, short let motels, and scoring spots beneath the wings of the City Of Angels.”

And for the hell of it, here's what Dan Fante had to say about Digging the Vein:

"Reading it, I could taste the LA smog. Here, pain comes at you like a Mack truck - relentless and unavoidable. Don't blink. Keep reading."

Enough said.

Lee Rourke © 2006.

Lee Rourke interviews Tony O'Neill >>HERE<<


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