Josephine 'Joe' Flannigan grew up in Hell's Kitchen. Her mother was what they might have called a floozy. Joe tried to raise and protect her younger sister Shelley, made money stealing and worse, and by 20 was a junkie. Now straight, but still shoplifting for cash, she keeps a scrapbook tracking the modelling career of the sister she rarely sees, and keeps clean of junk. Then she's offered a job searching for a missing Barnard co-ed, who's been lured into the world of dope by a slick pimp. Her search takes her back into the lap of temptation, and back into a world where nothing is the way it seems. She may be tough, but she may not be quite as tough as she needs to be.
It's New York City in the early 1950s, and Sara Gran's 2006 novel pulsates with the stacatto beat of the sleazy underworld and the sometimes sleazier straight world as well. The book is structured like Dante's Inferno, a descent into ever more vicious circles of a sort of hell, but at the same time it's a hell that offers some freedoms from the hypocrises and shackles of the bright world outside those circles. Dope reads like a cross between the William Burroughs prose of Junky and the pulp crime novels of Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and maybe most of all David Goodis, with its emphasis on disfunctional family values.
Gran gets the tone both of the times and the pulp novels that themselves represented a kind of underbelly of that world we often associate with Disney, Beaver, and Mad Men. She also keeps her own tone steady, gathering speed on the downward descent, and preparing the reader for a remarkable twist at the end that literally had me going back to check and see how well prepared it had been. This doesn't seem to have published in the UK, which might explain how I missed it, but I do regret that now. A first-rate piece of neo-pulp, with enough of a modern sensibility behind it to be knowing comment, but not so much as to be ironic. I love it.
Dope by Sara Gran
Berkeley Books, $14.00, ISBN 9780425214367