Alan Glynn's The Dark Fields

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The thesis of Alan Glynn's The Dark Fields (Bloomsbury, 342 pages, $24.95) is What If This Happened? As in what if a pharmaceutical company and an elegant NYC cocaine dealer invented and distributed a pill that turned the user into a genius? What if there was perfection in a pill? What if Eddie Spinola, a depressed copywriter toady in his garret on Ave A. (in other words, you, pal), somehow got ahold of a big stash of these pills, ate one a day and within days, with his brain lit up like a slot machine, had easily written the book he had been unable to jumpstart with his own palsied intellect and ambition? What if this miracle drug (known as MDT-48) could actually cause Spinola to brim with such ambition and charisma that within weeks he will casually turn into a brilliant day trader and a gentleman seer capable of orchestrating corporate mergers like an idiot savant in wingtips? What if these pills ($500 a swallow, one dose is worth about 20 hours of creative frenzy) inseminated Manhattan and Washington?

What if? The answer is simple: It would blow. Period. For, as The Dark Fields yawningly details, even the perfect designer drug has a vicious boomerang.

This story is a suicide note, a flashback; with a drug in the starring role, it can't be anything else. Glynn makes that clear long before the close of the (very brief) first chapter, where we find Spinola dying in his Vermont hideout, waiting on the "skull-wide agony" of withdrawal, and writing the final story on his laptop: "So how do I begin this? ...I probably only have a couple of hours..."

It is not particularly grating that The Dark Fields is yet another one of those suicide notes that every mortally wounded player feels compelled to write after he loses big one last time. Every exposition on an Age of Excess must be, at its core, an apology, a suicide note. For if no one dies, you weren't playing hard enough, and nothing's quite as tasty as a dupe who wins the cash and prizes and then crashes and burns. Fitzgerald's naive bootlegger-cum-scapegoat (Glynn's title comes from a passage in Gatsby), Martin Amis' Money, McInerney's Bright Lights (Spinola even uses the term "Bolivian Marching Powder" to describe cocaine, his former addiction) and the current shitstream of drug memoirs like The Dark Fields are all concessions of failure. But The Dark Fields tries really hard to be something special: one of the most problematic bits about The Dark Fields is the twee ribbon bookmark sewn into the binding, cookbook style. And this ain't no drug cookbook, or even an anarchist's diary.

It seems Glynn is no stranger to the banality of cocaine addiction, writer's block or the fruitless wonderings of how to begin a novel, and in a somewhat bitter stroke he gives us a banal and fruitless narrator. And that is the most grating part: Spinola is a boob right out of the gate, and throughout the novel, his whining monologues about his career, his habit, his apartment, his appearance and his love life are so dead-on boring I wanted to be high just so he'd be interesting to me.

What is interesting, though, is Glynn's take on the MDT high. Spinola describes it as "[t]his unrelenting fucking surge of having to be busy," and the slick shady character who gives Spinola his first dose (for free, of course) describes MDT in a way that sounds, to addict ears, like all perfection: "You know the way drugs fuck you up? You have a good time doing them but then you get all fucked up afterwards...this little baby is the diametric opposite of that."

MDT is ambition in a pill (every dead battery's dream); and it even comes with no piper-paying the morning after. The drug gives an endless chrysalis of energy and ideas, charm, productivity, loquaciousness, with no appetite or need for sleep, which are also the garden variety symptoms of mania?the high and wild side of manic depression; the crazed war-whoop before the death gurgle. Not fun. Mania is probably a required pathology for those who want to do more than just live like a hunchback in Manhattan, the real twin city of no-fuse and long-fuse, a place that fosters equal and extreme parts mania and depression. Yet if anyone thinks perfection is a $500 hit of piebald, wall-eyed mania, a disorder that eventually lands one in the lap of an intake nurse, jabbering like a supermodel with early Alzheimer's, then we have a problem.

Actually, Glynn's detail of MDT's more refined effects is the best part of the book, and the best part of the high?it's like the opposite of ADD, and a cokehead's dream come true. Superior language acquisition skills, the ability to read and digest fat books in a single sitting and an unwavering attention span sound good to me right about now, and, at least in The Dark Fields, MDT might be the only way for the mortals to keep up with evolution. MDT is the ecstatic finger of God in Adam's bum, for it allows Spinola to quickly alchemize the avalanche of information hurled at him. Even a tired fraud like Spinola can run with the creme de la creme, who, in The Dark Fields, are (scarily enough) the global moneymen: crass, Midas-rich, intelligent suits who are dazzled by his seemingly homegrown talent.

Spinola's MDT addiction doesn't simply ruin his life and career, oh no. After all, designer drug addiction is more than just a personal hell; it's also grounds for a cloddy suspense novel. In one of Glynn's more heavyhanded gestures, Spinola's frightening blackouts (caused by his increasing dependence on MDT) and his erratic behavior are responsible for the collapse of a huge merger?and perhaps the dissolution of all of the behemoth companies involved. Spinola also might have killed a prominent Mexican artist's wife while he was in a blackout. Too bad, because relations between Mexico and the U.S. are strained to begin with, and war is imminent. Like a stoned Forrest Gump, Spinola causes the world to unravel, and just before he hightails it out of the city with cops and creditors in his wake, his supply gone, an anonymous baddie from the pharmaceutical company calls and lets him know that he has been "a very useful subject." As Spinola dies in exile like a useless beetle on a glass slide, he realizes that his suspicions were true. The head of the pharmaceutical company that makes MDT is the brother of the Secretary of Defense, and all of the top brass in Washington are turned on as well: the President is on tv, and Spinola can't bear to look at the "alert, gorged MDT expression in his eyes."

Spinola finishes his story as the book ends ("I look at the keyboard once more and, wishing the command had a wider, smarter application?wishing it could somehow mean what it says?press 'save'") and is presumably just another dead junkie criminal in an ugly hotel room. Glynn might not have invented the perfect drug, but he might have invented the perfectly hideous drug addict: a boring loner who causes a hell of a lot of casualties.

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