Friday, September 17, 2021

The Book You Have to Read: “The Panic in Needle Park,” by James Mills

(Editor’s note: This is the 172nd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Maintaining a heroin addiction definitely isn’t for the lazy. When not on the nod, an addict needs the tenacity to track down a reliable source of drugs, enough money to make the purchase, and the power of invisibility to remain under narcotics agents’ radar. The most important survival skill is the ability to betray fellow addicts without compunction or remorse: A user would as readily jab a needle into a fellow junkie’s arm to remedy a painful withdrawal as he (or she) would put a knife into that same person’s back in order to steal their dope or stay out of jail. Readers discover, in James Mills’ The Panic in Needle Park (1966), that opiate addiction is more than a full-time job—it’s a way of life.

Prior to penning this novel, Mills, an associate editor at Life magazine, spent months immersing himself in New York City’s addict subculture, following junkies around as they scored; observing them getting high or enduring the agony of withdrawal; and watching them engage in petty thievery and prostitution to pay for their habits, and then spend their lives in cheap hotels, grimy coffeeshops, and on desolate street corners. Amid this tawdry atmosphere, Mills found a love story: a triangle between two junkies, Bobby and Helen, and their real true love—heroin.

Panic could be an example of “immersion journalism”—think John McPhee’s thoughtful explications in the field, or the impressionism of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, a disclaimer on the title page states that this book is “both fact and fiction,” which is a problem, because only Mills can say where the facts end and the fictions begin, giving skeptics good reason to believe that it’s a novel, which in the opinion of many readers, it is. Also, the soliloquies of Bobby and Helen possess a streetwise eloquence that is rhythmically perfect in dispensing the right amount of information. While not exactly Shakespeare, suffice it to say that “every word Bobby spoke was colored by the symptoms of his disease—self-deception, immaturity, insecurity, guilt.” Mills is nonjudgmental and offers a sympathetic rendering of heroin addicts—slaves all to the drug—by giving them a human face. They love, and have regrets and dreams which, at a young age, they know they’ll never attain. The titular panic in this tale is a heroin shortage caused by a drug bust in Marseilles, France, which galvanizes every junkie to hustle more than usual and to act more recklessly to get their fix; but the panic also offers desperate opportunities for those on the make. One who wants to improve his prospects and gain a dependable source is Bobby.

Not content to be the guy at the lowest end of the supply chain, the one who peddles nickel bags to junkies, Bobby hatches a plot to usurp Little Tony, a mafioso who wholesales ounces to street dealers. In addition to ensuring his dope supply, Bobby imagines that toppling Tony will bring him respect from the junkies who are his peers. This subplot doesn’t develop until much later and adds a bit of drama that helps conclude the book. Until then, it’s secondary to the daily drama of living with heroin addiction.

If all this scrambling about for dope and trying not to get pinched by Gotham cops isn’t enough for Panic’s characters, their lives become still more complicated when Mills introduces into his story a narcotics detective by the name of Hotchner. He’s been having sex with Helen, and that has protected her from arrest and kept her furnished with dope when she’s been in need. But now Hotchner wants something more. He wants to make a bust, and not just of any old stumble-bum addict or pusher; he has his eyes set on Little Tony, a “made” man in the mafia. To accomplish that goal, the detective has to begin by turning the screws on Helen. A game is being played here between junkies, dealers, and officers of the law. “You can have junkie friends, I mean ones you can trust. Because they’re junkies,” Helen explains early on. Yet by the end of this book, the backstabbing moves up the food chain and the players in “Needle Park” (then a nickname for Sherman Square and nearby Verdi Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side) take a hiatus.

The Panic in Needle Park was produced as a motion picture in 1971, and included youthful performances by Al Pacino and Raúl Juliá. The screenplay was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, two seasoned authors who knew their way around noir. The literature of addiction is vast, ranging from Thomas de Quincy’s elegant Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821) to screenwriter and novelist Jerry Stahl’s hilarious and sometimes transgressive Permanent Midnight (1995), a memoir which made it to the big screen as well. James Mills’ Panic walks somewhere between these two. His audience was the middle-class subscribers to Life, in which this story was originally serialized before being published in novel form. Mills showed that the poppy was more than a flower by introducing his readers to a strange, often frightening world—one not quite so unnerving as Stahl’s sharp-stick-in-the-eye portrayal, but also not so dainty and rapturous as de Quincey’s opium dreams.

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