Review of Norman Savage’s autobiography Junk Sick inside:
I’ve had a long continuous fist-fight
with death. People were merely pre-lims.
– Norman Savage
Norman Savage’s life starts at 11 when he is diagnosed with diabetes. The whole anatomy of his life involves the disease. “Good diabetic control implies structure, work, planning, and deprivation, food deprivation. If you adhere to some rules and regulations, your odds are better of living a life relatively free of too many problems and complications. My gut instincts are to rebel against such a life.” And so he does, embarking on a 45-year odyssey of drugs, family, women, and poetry. He chronicles them in his autobiography, Junk Sick. (Get it at Smashwords.)
It starts with his family: “The helix of fate sealed with genetic glue grows like mold in the dark; it is moist, responds to secrets or silences, and needs no nourishment, except fear.” In the 50s very little was known about diabetes. Though they love him, Savage’s parents don’t know what to with their sick son. His mother preens over his every move. His father, a “disappointed gangster at heart”, treats his son like breakable china and withdraws. Savage wonderfully describes him as having “a heart, a twisted, misguided, loving, manipulative, judgmental, critical, ambivalent, divided, bleeding, granulated, diseased by hurt and betrayal heart, but he had a human, a very human heart.”
Fleeing his home in Brooklyn, Savage doesn’t have to search far for kicks. Introduced to heroin as a teenager, he is soon roaring full-bore down the substance highway, a junkie diabetic poet. Highlights: four amputated toes, a seduced and murderous socialite, knifepoint mugging in the Bronx, and friendships with Tom Waits and Allen Ginsberg. You wince at his drug-discombobulated days. When he passes out with a syringe in his arm, you think, how can he do that? The man is sick!
But the disease proves to be a deliverer. His ritual attention to diet and bodily functions, insulin shots, and close contact with the medical establishment keeps him alive. If he hadn’t been a diabetic, likely we wouldn’t be reading his memoir. But there’s no reckoning the price: “Even I could no more understand what my life was costing me than what your life really cost you.”
His other savior: poetry. Time and again he drags himself from the gutter to the page, never surrendering entirely to his narcotic demons, facing down the doubts a writer brings to the desk, privy to the holy madness of Ginsberg or Kerouac: “And so, with a niggling feeling inside me, a feeling that was not new to me, a feeling that told me I was copping-out, lying, that I was too easy on myself, that I was afraid, afraid of failure, looking stupid, unlearned, not assured, clumsy, awkward, and most importantly, vulnerable, I went back to concentrating on poems.”
Savage says there are “monsters of literature that have altered me in profound ways: Ginsburg, Selby, Celine, Pound, Pynchon, Crews, Roth, Morrison, Bukowski, who keep you going, restore your faith, patch up your pockmarked soul.” So imagine his wonderment when a teacher at the New School for Social Research offers to introduce him to number one on the list. Ginsburg becomes his mentor and friend: “I’d go up to Ginsberg’s pad on 10th Street and learn how to breathe life into my line and imagery into my words.” Apparently he made an impression on Ginsberg, as well. Twenty years later while student-teaching at Stuyvesant High School he casually calls Ginsberg and gets him to come do a reading.
Another luminary in Junk Sick is Tom Waits. Fast friends since the 70s, Waits “rekindled the writing bug” in Savage and would “call me up in the middle of the night from places that seemed like outposts in America, small cities in Idaho or Minnesota.” When Waits performed on Saturday Night Live, Savage was backstage in the green room. But their times together were no red carpet affair: “We would journey to Times Square arcades, catch flesh at some strip club like the Baby Doll Lounge, go to The Cedar or Doc’s pad or mine, talk and laugh and bullshit through the night and then get some food, the greasier the better, at an all night diner or café.”
Unfortunately, Savage’s good times continually bring him back to the substances: “Whatever intelligence or personality I possessed was in service of whatever drug I was doing.” Locked in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of dependence that subsumes hope and meaning into a quest for another high, Savage is unforgiving towards himself: “I became as boring and predictable as bad writing.” To himself, maybe. Not me reading it.
Junk Sick does have its rough patches. Sections about the politics of drug rehab centers are somewhat drawn-out. The physical descriptions are sometimes leave a little lacking, as in “through the picket fences of elbows and legs I managed to see how life drains out of someone.” He is a little free with the double quotes: not everything needs to be “explained”. I would have liked to get a little more detail about New York itself, CBGB’s, driving a taxi, scoring heroin in the Bronx projects, but Savage breezes over these as though they are everyday occurrences. I suppose it’s because the city is Savage’s oxygen.
One of Savage’s heroes, the poet Charles Bukowski, never much rose above his own credo of “Don’t Try.” Savage did, not keeling under to despair or bitterness. In the twilight of his life, finally clean and sober, he reflects with humility: “I’ve become an Everythingian. Knowing that the brain of an ant is more complex than our most advanced computer, how the hell am I going to choose one explanation for how I developed and survived?”
I don’t know, either, but as a reader I’m glad there is one, and that Junk Sick came of it. Junk Sick is an absorbing read. Read it for an eyeball-level look into a life most people wouldn’t have survived.
This review also appeared at TeleRead.