Tuesday 19 September 2017

Intoxicating odyssey through the crystal maze

Non-fiction: The Ice Age, Luke Williams, Scribe, pbk, 384pages, €15.99

Meth lab: Walt and Jesse in cult TV classic Breaking Bad
Meth lab: Walt and Jesse in cult TV classic Breaking Bad
Emotional depth: Luke Williams
The Ice Age by Luke Williams

Chris Harvey

To research his book on crystal meth, Luke Williams took the drug - then became addicted.

In the cult television drama series Breaking Bad, put-upon, middle-aged chemistry teacher Walter White employs his skills to synthesise a pure form of illegal methamphetamine - crystal meth - and becomes rich. The show made the drug, and its effects, famous. In The Ice Age: a Journey into Crystal Meth Addiction, Australian ­journalist Luke Williams details how it has been able to get a hold on a broad community of real-life users in Australia, and how during the course of his research, it also got a deep hold on him.

Williams shows how the drug is an intoxicating bedfellow, increasing confidence and creating feelings of euphoria and heightened sexual desire. "Drugs don't become addictive because they make you feel as if you're eating razor blades," he stresses, "they become addictive because they feel bloody awesome. Meth feels spectacular."

First synthesised from the plant extract ephedrine in 1893 by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi, methamphetamine was originally marketed for its health benefits. In tablet form, trade-named Pervitin, it was extensively used by German soldiers, including Luftwaffe pilots, during World War II. It was manufactured as a diet pill in America in the 1950s and 60s. It wasn't until the 1970s that it became a controlled substance in many jurisdictions.

But crystal meth has a sting in the tail. The drug is a neurotoxin that damages the body's ability to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine naturally, leaving those who stop using the drug craving it just to feel "normal". "Life stopped seeming interesting when I was not on meth," is how Williams describes it.

In higher doses, disturbing side effects lie in wait. They include psychosis, bleeding in the brain and violent behaviour, many horror stories of which Williams relates here, including some unbelievably horrific murders.

Delusions are common. Williams opens with a series of emails sent when he was researching the book and had begun to believe that his own descent into meth addiction was akin to a mystical journey.

Funny, yes, but in documenting his addiction, Williams thrusts the book into the realm of celebrated drug memoirs, from Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) to William Burroughs's novelised Junkie (1953) and Hunter S Thompson's part-autobiographical, part-fictional Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972).

At first, Williams's fall seems quite deliberate, a desire to join that illustrious gang, a canny decision to make his future book stand out. But gradually, his account accrues an emotional depth that defies cynicism. It shifts the focus away from an unredeemed, unrepentant central narrator and towards two characters who are key to his drug use: Beck, a former school friend, whom he describes as "a genuinely nice person who wouldn't hurt a fly", and ex-army, ex-con Smithy, her on-off partner, a cricket-loving occasional drug dealer.

When he moves in with them for research purposes, and begins intermittently using crystal meth, the narrative begins to trace an inevitable arc. Meanwhile, Beck and Smithy's increasingly disappointing story of interpersonal suspicion, restraining orders and failed parenthood takes on a life of its own that one could easily imagine as a gritty movie.

Williams's own story, which includes flashbacks to his persecution as a gay teenager in "post-AIDS 1990s country Australia", soon narrows down to his drug-assisted nadir - thrown out of his parents' home, without enough money for a homeless shelter, sleeping on the porch of a drug counselling centre.

The Ice Age is really two books together, part memoir, part scholarly survey, albeit a very location-specific one. Australia's proximity to south-east Asia, where crystal meth production has grown in scale as an alternative to crop-based drugs such as heroin, makes it a ready market for smugglers. Even so, the drug only began to flood the country around 2011, according to Williams, long after it had become a serious problem in North America, as explored in more touristic fashion by Louis Theroux in his 2009 documentary The City Addicted to Crystal Meth, which investigated the problem in Fresno, California.

The intensity of Williams's focus on Australia's meth problem is ultimately not a flaw but a virtue - it's what makes The Ice Age vividly memorable.

The Aussie slang - sooks, bogans and bikies - will have the uninitiated turning to Google, but when Williams compares crystal meth to "the bite of the blue ring octopus", whose poison is worse than its bite, it sticks in the mind. It takes some time, he concludes, to realise you have been poisoned.

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