Review: Playing Chicken With Thanatos by Díre McCain (Apophenia Books)

I had the great and rare privilege of reading a manuscript version of this book some time ahead of its final draft and subsequent publication. Then, it had a different working title and a number of changes would follow which made tracing some of the identities of the real-life characters who populate the book rather more difficult. But even in its not-quite complete stage, I was struck by a number of things, not least of all the vibrancy of the narrative, the immediacy of it all, how relatable and accessible the narrator was.

Now, I’ve known the author – virtually, at least, and over Skype – for a number of years: under the auspices of co-founders Díre McCain and D M Mitchell, Paraphilia Magazine generously published my work from the very first issue at a time when no-one else would (a situation that continues, if the truth be known) and have been immensely supportive through the years, long before I clambered aboard as a contributing editor. Díre also graced the Clinical, Brutal anthology I edited for Clinicality Press in 2010 with a piece that was stunning, not to mention truly brutal. So I had an inkling of her abilities as a writer, and indeed of her turbulent formative years. But none of this could have really prepared me for her autobiographical novel.

It’s everything you want from a novel: the narrator drags you along on the journey: at times you sympathise, at others, not so much, but that’s how it is with friends, you take the rough with the smooth. It’s the raw honesty of Díre’s narrative, delivered in a strong, individual voice, that’s so compelling and so human that means you forgive, and you worry about what will happen, you’re there in the moment.

It’s also the fact that however bad things get, however badly she’s treated and however low she sinks, she never plays ‘the victim’, and herein lies the book’s greatest strength: she just tells it straight, and never uses sensationalism to detail sensational events. In this way, Playing Chicken With Thanatos doesn’t sit with the contemporary vogue for memoir, but instead belongs to a strain of classic American autobiographical reportage: Bukowski’s Post Office springs to mind; Jack Black’s You Can’t Win; Burroughs’ Junky, and from over the pond, Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho and Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court, All Change. What all these books share is an episodic approach to storytelling and a lack of pretence.

There are moments that are utterly terrifying, and the happy-go-lucky easy rollin’ of teen experimentation with whatever substances are on offer takes a turn into extremely dark territories, and the later sections of the book are indeed harrowing. But it’s by no means a depressing book: even through the bleakest sections, the way the words simply flow is a joy, and the author’s sharp intellect and extensive vocabulary set Playing Chicken With Thanatos leagues apart from any drug-addled confessional. And, despite placing a clear distance between her past and present, at no point does Playing Chicken With Thanatos become a vehicle for anti-drug rhetoric, high moralisation or preaching: the fact Díre doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence – or mar the narrative – with such interjections is another aspect of what makes this book such a great read.

It’s from a purely objective mindset that I say that this book is special, bursting with life and emotional resonance and that for these reasons I give it my strongest recommendations. So do as the preface bids: ‘fasten your fucking seatbelt and hold the fuck on….’

 

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Link: http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/diremccain/playing-chicken-with-thanatos/

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

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