Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Written for the Road...

Hubert Selby's 1978 novel "Requiem for a Dream" must certainly rank as one of the most effective depictions of addiction ever written. A critically acclaimed film of the same name, released in 2000 and directed by Darren Aronofsky, has brought more attention to the novel. Although I have yet to see the film, I decided to read the book before watching the movie because I wanted to know what dark visions await me when I finally slide that DVD into the player. If the story is any indication, the film promises a devastating experience. This is not a sunshine and smiles book. It is an unflinching look at addiction and its consequences.
There are four central characters in "Requiem for a Dream." There is Sara Goldfarb, a lonely widow who spends her days watching television, eating chocolate covered cherries, and pining for her late husband Seymour. Harry Goldfarb, Sara's black sheep of a son, is another main character. Harry's circle of acquaintances includes his girlfriend Marion, an intelligent, attractive young girl with a talent for painting but paralyzed with defeatist and self-loathing feelings. Harry's best friend is Tyrone C. Love, a young black man who grew up poor in Harlem but would like to escape from the harsh realities of the street. While minor characters come and go during the course of the story, Selby focuses on these four in an attempt to show the trajectory of doom associated with addiction.

Things do not seem to go very wrong throughout the first part of the book. It is summer in New York City and time for fun and sun. Harry, Tyrone, and Marion spend their time partying with their friends, listening to music, and enjoying each other's company. Sara watches her television shows and eats her candy in blissful peace, only occasionally worrying about what her son Harry is up to. Even better news lands in the laps of our four characters in short order. Sara receives a phone call from a company that finds contestants for game shows, promising her that all she need do is fill out a questionnaire and she will have the chance to appear on television. Sara is of course elated, and decides that if she really has a shot at winning some dough she should probably go on a diet and lose a few pounds in order to look her best. Meanwhile, Tyrone and Harry implement serious plans to obtain a pound of pure heroin so they can get rich and retire from street life. After putting in a grinding week working, the two earn enough money to purchase some drugs and begin dealing to people they know on the street. As the money flies in, Marion and Harry start making plans to someday open their own little business. Even though the three are users and breaking the law by dealing drugs, the future seems bright.

Then winter arrives. Things start to fall apart for Sara, Harry, Marion, and Tyrone. For Sara, an attempt at a diet found in a book does not have the expected payoff. At the recommendation of a neighbor, she goes to a local doctor who prescribes diet pills. Sara's cheery demeanor gradually erodes under the duress of non-reply from the game show company and the slavery of the pills. Harry, Marion, and Tyrone are no better off. Their heroin supply dries up, reducing the trio to scrounging for drugs just as their compulsion grows worse. The deterioration of the four protagonists quickly escalates into a bleak and depressing free fall of pain and degradation.

All four individuals suffer untold horrors by the end of the book, but I think the most pathetic account concerns Sara. Here is a lady who seems harmless, who only wants the best for her son and tries to get through lonely days laced with the pain of losing her husband. She fervently believes she will get on television if she can only muster enough self-control to quit overeating. Her naiveté about the dangers of diet pills leads to disaster merely because she has no conception that there are doctors who are quacks. Sara's innocence makes for a truly poignant story. I had less sympathy for the other three characters. Since none of them are idiots by any means, they knew the dangers of drugs but fell into the old trap of "that can't happen to me." That does not lessen the message of the book, but it does make Sara stand apart.

The writing style of the author is quite unorthodox. There are no chapters, no quotation marks, and sentences that run on for miles. This does make it difficult at first to discern who is talking and to whom, but by the time a few dozen pages pass by it makes little difference in the flow of the story. Selby instills Tyrone with a noticeable street accent, and Sara is often alone when we see the sections dealing with her, so do not worry about the format of the novel.

You cannot escape the theme of addictions in this tale. But what is interesting about it is that Selby equates all excessive compulsions. Heroin usage is as damaging to the soul as is obsessive television viewing or overeating. All have the potential to lead to utter destruction whether you are a young kid roaming the streets or a middle-aged widow who rarely leaves the apartment.

In an introduction to this edition of the book, Selby writes a powerful statement about his tale. He says that "Requiem for a Dream" is about what happens when we concern ourselves more with getting than giving in life, and that the book is an examination of what happens when people chase the illusions of the dream of consumerism and materialism instead of following the truth in their hearts. For a powerful story, look no further than this tale.

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