Stephen Elliott is a drug addict, a weeper, a whiner, a denizen of S&M dungeons, a womanizer, a betrayer of friends and strangers. He suffered an epic, two-year-long writer’s block, survived a childhood out of Dickens (except worse). He is an obsessive digresser, a champion of the poor and dispossessed. He was friends with a friend of a guy who killed a man with a hunting bow and arrow, for kicks. He likes women to cut him and to scar him. He seduces female students, and he lets them seduce him. He hates his monstrous father, but he can’t stop looking for him, trying to reason with him, seeking his love. Stephen Elliott is really, really messed up, and the writer’s block is killing him. He is filled with grace and love. What can he do? He decides his salvation lies in cranking up his already bad Adderall habit and setting out to cover the sensational murder trial of a San Francisco Internet genius charged with killing his Russian quasi-mail-order bride.
If this sounds like the setup for a bad joke, or a disastrous literary stunt, or the kind of precious postmodern dreck that charms critics and disgusts anyone with a half a brain, then you might be unfamiliar with Stephen Elliott’s work. I was unfamiliar myself, and The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder sounded that way to me. Then I started reading it. It opens with this line: “My father may have killed a man,” then continues for 208 taut, high-wire, brilliant pages.
The plot is fairly simple—did the guy accused of killing his wife do it, and if not, was it his incredibly creepy friend (whom Elliott knows from the S&M world) who was responsible? But it’s everything else in the book—the search for paternal love, the author’s meditations on the nature of truth, an analysis of the betrayal at the heart of so much journalism, Elliott’s doomed but relentless spiritual longing—that elevates it into another realm.
Whenever I read or hear “meta” or “postmodern” or “fiercely honest,” I usually head for a lowbrow potboiler. But I’m not sure how else to describe such a fiercely honest, postmodern work—that’s also more compulsively readable than the most pulpish thrillers.
- The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder
- Stephen Elliott. Graywolf Press, $23
- Amazon: The Adderall Diaries
I’m still not sure how he did it. With candor so raw it makes me never want to use “fiercely honest” to describe another writer’s work. With a style of writing so unaffected and artless that at times you feel like you’re reading someone’s journal. You read this and you think, This is the truth. With a corrosive, lacerating eye that spares no one—not his friends, his girlfriends, his mother or father, other reporters and especially and most of all, himself. (His evisceration of the producers of ABC’s 48 Hours is especially delicious.)
There might be a false note or two in the book (I didn’t care for the linking of the brilliant information-retrieval system that the murderer created with the way the human brain works and the deep, metaphysical connection we were supposed to feel between the two), but in a book this ambitious and all-over-the-place, what’s a false note or two? I don’t think I have ever underlined so many passages. It could be (to get a little Elliottish and meta) because I’m a writer who has dabbled in self-loathing and frustrated periods of not writing and romantic difficulties and the feeling that what I’m doing is betraying those closest to me myself, or it could be that we’re all that person, or it could be that the guy is just so good.
On his father’s failed writing career:
“I got the impression he was too concerned with what editors wanted and how much he was getting paid per hour, which is death for a writer.”
On a friend complaining about being included in the very book he’s writing:
“Eddie shakes his head and mentions being exploited in my writing before. People often feel exploited when they find themselves in my work. It doesn’t matter if I call it fiction; I know as well as they do that’s not an excuse. I don’t bother trying to defend myself. It’s not defensible, it’s just what I do. I spend years crafting a two-hundred-page story, all the time my life sits next to me like a jar of paint.
“I want to tell Eddie that writing a novel is an act of love, but it’s much more complicated than that. ... Eddie’s trying to rebuild his life. He’s lost his license and the mother of his child has taken out a restraining order against him. He says maybe he should get a cut from my writing.
“‘How about I buy you a beer?’ I say.
“‘That’ll work,’ he replies, though I know it won’t.”
On the prosecutor of the murder case:
“Paul Hora might be the only decent man in the courtroom. Simple and honest, he refers to himself as a Boy Scout, believes deeply in the law, and goes to sleep early at night. He’s one of the best prosecutors in the state. He won’t talk to the media. His only fault is a tendency to assume guilt in the accused. A small blemish compared to the rest of us: sluts, media whores, murderers.”
Toward the end of the book, as the murder trial winds to a close, after detours and digressions and stops along the way to consider Robert Pirsig, San Francisco, Chicago, Elizabeth Wurtzel, the woman who carved, into his thigh, “MY DIRTY WHORE” and many, many, many other topics, Elliot admits, “Neat conclusions do nothing for me … I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect.”
With The Adderall Diaries, he succeeds without qualification.