If you read enough memoirs that deal frankly and viciously with drug abuse, it’s at least a little understandable to get a little cynical. Yet when something as fresh and powerhouse as Patrick O’Neil’s Gun, Needle, Spoon comes along, the cynicism dies a quick, humorless death. O’Neil flawlessly combines his merciless attention to detail with everything else needed to tell an unforgettable story. The end result is something so disquieting in its depiction of life a few inches beneath the rope, there are times when you’re going to wish that Gun, Needle, Spoon was just a work of fiction.
But it’s not a work of fiction. O’Neil’s book is very real, and we are quite lucky that he lived to tell the tale. More to the point, we’re lucky he remembers so much from travels that have already stacked nine or ten lifetimes on top of each other. From his connections to the San Francisco club Mabuhay Gardens, to his time with bands like The Dead Kennedys and Flipper, to a relationship with heroin that turns most people into dust that fits neatly into the spaces between the sidewalks of a crumbling metropolis, O’Neil has seen a lot. The book’s harrowing introduction is perfect, in terms of making us pay attention right from the start. By the time you get through it, you’re ready to know just how in the hell this guy lived through it all.
O’Neil is aware of the fact that he gets you right at the beginning. For the most part, he never fails to use this to his advantage. Gun, Needle, Spoon remains intensely readable throughout. One of the most appealing aspects of the book, which is also one of the main things that separates O’Neil’s story from other drug-fueled memoirs, is the unapologetic tone the book maintains. We know drug addiction is bad. Or at least you fucking should. We don’t need the morality of the situation dictated to us like feeble-minded children. What we need are stories that assume that we are capable of making our decisions about the story we are hearing. O’Neil either doesn’t give a damn what you think, or he simply trusts the reader to be smart enough to make their own judgments. He offers his story with grim humor and unsettlingly vivid imagery. What he does not do is lecture. You could honestly make the case that O’Neil’s story doesn’t even really have a specific point. It’s just a story. It’s very unique his story. He tells it with blunt force style. He also utilizes the jump-cut approach, with everything that happens in the book after that initial story serving to bring us back to start of the book. This is occasionally jarring, but it keeps things exciting.
In the end, some people may have a substantial problem with how unsympathetically O’Neil portrays himself. The book is indeed unapologetic, and that definitely extends to how O’Neil realizes himself on the page. Over the course of Gun, Needle, Spoon, he will do a number of loathsome things, mainly to feed his addiction. Make no mistake of the fact that these things will make you flinch. You may even get to a point where you don’t care for O’Neil too terribly much. Again, all of these reactions are entirely your call to make. You may demand more of O’Neil as a writer, or at least demand more of him as a storyteller. You’re not going to get it.
All you have is the story. Nothing more than a straightforward, well-written story about a man making bad decisions. The fact that we don’t get a lot of backstory to understand why O’Neil turned to drugs in the first place may or may not frustrate you. I didn’t mind that. I took Gun, Needle, Spoon as a ride. It’s a survivor’s story. O’Neil survived addiction. He clearly survived the monster addiction turned him into. Any other thoughts about the story beyond those facts are left entirely up to the reader. Some might find that frustrating. I think it’s admirable.