When you listen to a jazz recording, you hear more if you’ve heard jazz live – and more again if you’ve been a musician. Your experienced mind adds bits and pieces to what’s affecting your ears: you can see the sax player breathe, and feel the hit from the drummer’s rim shot.
I am sure it’s the same for people who read Bongs For Steve. The merely curious may find it entertaining, but you’ll enjoy it more if you like to get high – or once liked to.
You’ll understand why simple jokes go down as so funny. Why people forget what they were going to say.
Why the narrator reports his having told his host that he’s not going to get wildly whacked this time, and his betraying through his speech seconds later that already he is wildly whacked.
The novel isn’t just for people who smoke. The narrative arc traces the mid-life crisis of an uptight copy editor who writes his way back to health. And who does so by exhuming memories of his getting high with sympathetic people whom he has trusted.
But I did write this story for smokers. I wrote it from a wish to celebrate the experience of sharing a bong or a joint with good friends. And not by making a joke of it – pace Cheech & Chong – or by representing it, Hunter Thompson style, as heroic.
I wanted to portray ordinary people having fun getting high, and to show that the fun could be about their simply suspending for a while the self-editing that people usually maintain when in company.
It’s a difficult trick. You need to find a way to display intoxication through dialogue while advancing the story.
In Bongs For Steve, the darker elements of the narrator’s personal relationships come to the surface in the conversations he reports from times when he was stoned, and both for good and for ill.
The for ill is relevant. Much as we might like to think of cannabis intoxication as harmless, inevitably it is hazardous.
It is hazardous even in so far as it may free us from our self-editing, because the self-editing arises from a protective impulse. Ordinarily, we have good reasons for conversing tactfully.
While our tact may be overdone or even counterproductive, its absence exposes us to censure for saying the sort of thing that most people keep to themselves. If we say something that wounds, those wounds may linger.
And so the very intention that formed Bongs For Steve – to portray ordinary people having fun getting high – leads to a sober portrayal, on balance, of recreational cannabis use. Yes it’s fun, but it also renders you vulnerable to certain real-time risks, which is why it is prudent to assess your environment before you partake.
Moreover, while its reputation among the ignorant grossly overstates the role of cannabis as a so-called gateway drug – much more plausibly, that would be alcohol – there is no question but that people who enjoy a recreational familiarity with one psychoactive substance will be more open to contact with people who play with another.
The obverse of that coin is the psychological space that recreational drug users inhabit. The urge to get out of it, to adopt a colloquialism, assumes discomfort of some kind with being in it – with living inside one’s own skin. The smoking characters in Bongs For Steve display this discomfort in different ways and experience it for different reasons. But it’s the discomfort as much as the smoking that draws them together.
Which is not to say that the narrative condemns its characters for their resorting to self-medication. The foil for those characters is their industrious and formidably rational associate Bob Cottleman, who has substituted productivity and career development for his one-time sharing in his friends’ dissipation. It is Bob who makes the case for the superior contribution of discipline to well-being. And yet it is Bob also who becomes dissatisfied with his achieving.
All of which shows Bongs For Steve to be a commentary on the social condition of western industrialised nations as much as an exercise in normalising cannabis use.
Similarly, there is a psychotherapeutic element to the self-analysis of first-person narrator Seamus “Shamo” Cullen, who learns to see himself as more welcomed by others than he had recognised. There is plenty in the story for people who don’t smoke, don’t eat cookies, don’t take E’s, and don’t do whatever else we do these days to get high.
It’s just that people who have smoked will get the most from the novel. It celebrates recreational cannabis use. Celebrates it in the broadest sense. When we celebrate a person, we don’t claim that she is without fault: rather, we say that for all her foibles, she has brought us a lot. In so far as Bongs For Steve celebrates smoking, it simply gives it its due.
Is this a memoir?
And so Bongs For Steve has a new cover, designed by Joe Montgomery. It’s arguable that a bag of scrawny looking weed on a business shirt says more about the novel than its prior cover image, which showed a man reflecting sombrely over a glass of wine with unpaid bills pinned to a board in the background.
But as I’ve said, it’s not so much that Bongs for Steve is just about smoking as that it is about smoking. The cover is meant to tell you that if you have enjoyed smoking, there’s a good chance you’ll appreciate Bongs For Steve – for its extended treating of a part of your life long mishandled in literature.
I’ll acknowledge here that my title appends to Bongs For Steve the qualifying phrase: A Memoir. Why did I add that, given that it’s a novel?
Well it’s styled as a memoir. Yes, it has that in common with a good many first-person narratives – I could exemplify The Great Gatsby, or Brideshead Revisited, or even Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, of which none is a memoir quite so explicitly. Perhaps I thought that Bongs For Steve read more like a memoir than most other first-person stories, or perhaps I thought the word memoir in the title would suggest helpfully that the experiences described had been drawn from life.
Or maybe I just wanted to make it harder for myself to bring the story to readers. Cogent speculation is welcome as comment.