Dope In The Age Of Innocence
by Mike Jay
[ bookreviews ]
It was precisely 50 years ago, with the UN Single Convention of 1961, that the global prohibition of drugs was fully enshrined in law. Ironically, this was also the moment that the modern drug counterculture took shape, a process that Damien Enright's memoirs capture in intimate and thrilling detail.
In 1961 the author is a questing youth, on the run from his parochial and priest-ridden Irish upbringing, watching James Dean movies, reading Dylan Thomas and hearing dreamlike tales of sun and free love among small bohemian communities in the Balearic Islands. Soon he is in Ibiza, peeling away from his drinking buddies for his first smoke of hashish on the beach. By 1964, he and his globetrotting circle have stitched together a global freak scene encompassing the kif-smokers of the Moroccan Rif, the sugar cubes of LSD leaking from the clinics of psychotherapists, the amphetamines that propel truck-drivers through the night, the Mexican peyote rituals witnessed by American beatnik wanderers, and the first caches of opium returning from the overland trail to India. Despite draconian law enforcement and propaganda campaigns that turned the peaceful doper into a terrifying folk devil, this was a new world for which the international drug laws had not been designed, and which they would prove unable to suppress.
"It's bullshit", Enright observes, "the cliché that if you can remember the Sixties you weren't there", and he proves the point on every page. Committed to 'living in the moment', he kept no journals and took no photos, but can summon scenes of half a century ago as if they were yesterday: the bucolic routines of life on a dollar a day with his lover and child in a Formentera farmhouse, the skin-crawling paranoia of fake-ID and travellers cheque scams in London and Amsterdam; the eternal nights of jazz, poetry and marital infidelity in Ibiza's beat scene, and the freewheeling fatalism of a reckless hash-smuggling run through a bleak Turkish winter. He is an expert and unpredictable storyteller, his fine-grained observation making it impossible to pick out the trivial details on which the plots will turn and his schemes succeed or fail: literary memoir and outcast thriller both play at perfect pitch. The collage of memories may be impressionistic (he can hardly, for example, have been under the thrall of Chariots of the Gods? in 1964) but the world they spin is fluently immersive.
At the core of Enright's achievement is his ability to inhabit the character of his younger self, the aspect of memoir that often proves the most elusive. Moments of hindsight and judgement are rare and delicately measured; the story plays out as the authentic stream of consciousness of a 25-year-old, surfing the present moment towards a future of infinite possibility. Life is a cavalcade of adventures, propelled by the narcissism and hubris of youth but shadowed by the fear of alienation and mental breakdown. The inevitable nemesis, when the scaffold of dreams comes crashing down, comes as a greater shock to the narrator than to the reader, and his slow awakening from innocence generates a powerfully affecting conclusion.