Killing Poppy, by William Perk. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Apocalypse Party, September 2018. 147 pages. $10.00, paper.
When we tell stories about addiction, two well-worn narratives hold sway. In one, addicts personify failure, debasing themselves in the face of the glory of the American Dream. In the other, they embody nobility, struggling against a darkness not of their own making. In Killing Poppy, published in September by Apocalypse Party, William Perk savages both pablums, allowing a view of the junkie that’s far more grotesque than anyone in the straight-world could know.
We follow Gust Ivey, the novel’s narrator, around Portland for a day in 2013, his chronicle peppered with details that bring the place alive. He transcribes pop lyrics and news bulletins off the radio, shares the pop lyrics in his head and even his own poetry. Gust has a bag that’s full of “enough Chimy to kill a dozen toddlers.” When he shoots it, it goes like this:
I slide the needle from my neck.
My pain leaks red and scabs like lips sewed shut and screaming.
I take a swig of Riptide Rush Gatorade.
The world melts black
Everyday accoutrements like his favorite brand of sport drink don’t fade because he is using, but they do become paired with descriptors borne of a ruthless intensity.
As the narrative progresses, Gust finds himself in the kinds of places one would expect a junkie to be in: empty lots, the 7-Eleven, a methadone clinic, the bank, and a candle-light N.A. meeting in the basement of Saint John the Baptist Church. He also picks up a companion along the way: an angel named Salo who is trying to get him to quit.
If that last part sounds like an original twist, it is, but maybe not in the way you might think. The angel does, on one hand, seem primed for a redemption narrative, spouting a roughed up twelve-step rhetoric as in the following exchange with Gust:
“Two paths are laid out before you. One path leads to death, and the other to life. To reach death, you must slay life. To reach life, you must slay death. You follow?”
“Your next shot of dope will kill you.”
But before you start thinking Hallmark Channel, you should know the angel leans heavily Old Testament—as in he’s a sociopath. He taunts Gust with riddles as opaque as good scripture. He encourages Gust’s poetry as well, and Gust responds with a creativity that exacerbates the violence and degradation. Several of those wonderful Portland places wind up smeared with blood, and there’s a motif of animal mutilation for good measure, but Gust trudges ever onward in a kind of sick supernatural scavenger hunt. In the end, Gust decodes both the angel’s parables and his own poems, claiming the ending he deserves.
By that point, the line between the wonderfully absurd and the disturbingly horrific has blurred until the result is pretty much reality. Of course, William S. Burroughs wrote realism and so does Mr. Perk. If there’s no moral dimension here, that’s because Killing Poppy isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s a travelogue. Since the spaces it describes are almost impossible to photograph, the book includes illustrations from Portland street artists Skam, Wokeface, Crace, and Sincanvas. The entire package renders Gust’s world in a vibrancy that will hook readers, at least those unwilling to avert their eyes.
Paul Dee Fecteau holds an MFA in Fiction from Wichita State and serves as the sole proprietor of Hieroglyphica Research Consultants, which offers tarot-based oppo research and background checks via gematria.