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Alexander Trocchi: Cain’s Book

The obvious book to compare this one to is William BurroughsNaked Lunch. Not that these are the only junkie novels – far from it – but they are both well-known in their own areas, the Burroughs’ one obviously better known generally. While Burroughs is what one can only describe as American – flamboyant, egotistical, loud-mouthed, wild, Trocchi is very British (despite his Italian ancestry) – laid back, descriptive in a low key manner, quiet, almost self-effacing. His story of his stay in New York, working on a scow, while doing drugs, is so well-told yet so different from Burroughs. If you are looking for the effects of shooting up or heroin withdrawal symptoms, then this is the wrong book for you. Not that he doesn’t discuss his own shooting up but his description is very laid-back. Indeed, his most telling description is a quote from Cocteau (in the original French, of course) which basically says that most of us are on an express train heading towards death while junkies step off the train and are concerned with things other than life and death.

Trocchi tells us not only of his life in New York but gives us this story of his childhood or, more particularly, of the effect on him of his Italian father, a man who was a musician and did not work for twenty-five years. The mother took in boarders and the father was obsessive about keeping the bathroom clean, abusing the other tenants for using the toilet and spending many hours a day in the bathroom keeping it clean. His father’s behaviour clearly had an effect on the young Trocchi, though whether it led him to drugs is not clear. Trocchi gives us an account of other junkies, most of whom seem to be dependent on their habit, whereas Trocchi, while still doing it, seems to be a bit above it all, taking drugs as though it were a perfectly normal thing to do and nothing special. But what he does, in his laid-back style, is tell us what life as a junkie might be – a lonely life, going nowhere, somewhat afraid of the world, with, as he says at the end, nothing ending, certainly not this. Frankly, I preferred it to the Burroughs’ book.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by John Calder