Dope by Sara Gran

Read August 2018
Recommended for fans of noir
★     ★    ★    ★  

Dope reminds me of that time I fell off the monkeybars. I landed on my back, hard enough that the wind was knocked out of me and for a second–it seemed forever–I couldn’t breathe in or out, just laid there, floundering.

That’s the end of Dope, a book about an ex-junkie who gets asked to find a missing college dropout who happens to be a current junkie. It makes a certain kind of sense to Josephine Flannigan; besides, this is 1950s NYC, and the cops don’t care much about some missing junkie girl. It doesn’t hurt that her parents are offering Jo more money than she’s seen in her entire life.

Maude said my name flatly, like I was dead or she wanted me to be. I sat across from her at a booth in the back of the bar, where the daylight never reached and the smell of stale beer and cigarettes never cleared. Maude had been the mistress of a gangster back in the thirties and he’d bought her this bar to set her up with something after he was gone.”

The narration is from Jo’s point of view, and is both direct and strangely emotionally stark. As Jo traces Nadine Nelson’s footsteps, she also traces her own past. It’s a quick read, scarcely more than novella length, but powerful. Woven through it in Gran’s straightforward prose, is a demonstration of the far-reaching effects of addiction. The miracle here is that it doesn’t even sound like a sermon. Other reviewers compare it to Raymond Chandler; I haven’t read him in decades so I can’t speak to that, but if you want to feel like you are reading a slice of history we’d rather forget, this is the book.

“I’d never been to the campus of Barnard before, and after spending the morning there I didn’t plan on ever going again. The buildings looked like courthouses, and the place was so far uptown I thought I was in Boston. The closest I’d been tot it before was up to 103rd Street, where a fellow I knew sold junk in a cafeteria. When the subway had stopped there I’d almost gotten off the train out of habit.”

Somehow Josephine has retain–or rediscovered?– her humanity after getting off the dope. It was kind of heartbreaking watching her maneuver through the city in search of Nadine, and listening to her dispassionate detail of who will end up where and why. You want something that will help you find some compassion for a junkie, this might be it. For me, it didn’t stand up to one of my favorite books ever, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, but I can understand why this book made Gran a force to be reckoned with.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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