A small confession: I had read the title of Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries for months—on Twitter, on the author's website, on the spine of the review copy even—before I got the joke of it. Once I clocked the pun on Jim Carroll's iconic drug memoir The Basketball Diaries, I felt invited into a book I kept not being able to get into. Not because of the Carroll—RIP by the way—but because of the pun. I had expected a standard-issue memoir about the specific hang-ups and hangovers caused by abuse of contemporary America's speed du jour—a drugs, sex, and self-revelation story written by someone whose work I always enjoy and who can be trusted not to stint on lurid detail. And sure enough, lurid detail abounds. Suck on this:
"I ask her to pinch my nipple and she does but it isn't enough. I ask her to do it harder and soon there is blood everywhere. There are people nearby but they don't seem to notice."
"The year on the streets had drained me. I'd followed a man into a hotel room and sat at a plastic table snorting lines of coke while a john with a black mustache and a blond wig wearing a nurse's dress sucked off two or three homeless men at a time."
(And he thinks he's drained!) Or perhaps this:
"She held her cigarette near my face and I could feel its heat about to burn my eyelids. She laughed loudly. Then she pressed the cigarette into the back of both of my hands. 'Those are going to blister.' The blisters, just behind my thumb and index finger, were the size of pencil erasers."
But this is not the story.
Elliott has clearly led the kind of life people should feel justified in writing stories about, be they autobiographical or merely semiautobiographical (see also: flammable, inflammable). Still, it's a mistake to focus too sharply on such scenes, which are related with all the zest of a war-crimes tribunal (not a criticism, by the way). Elliott's quest to find his real story is the story. The trail leads, via a sordid murder mystery he hopes to write a book about as it unfolds, through his drug habits, his sexual appetites, his emotional hunger, his properly miserable childhood. All roads lead to his troubling relationship with an abusive, inscrutable, inescapable father—whose narcissistic antagonism extends to writing negative reviews of his son's books on Amazon, among many worse things.
The mischief of the title is that it leads you to believe the book is conceived as a memoir in the drug-confessional tradition, when in fact it's something less common, more formally interesting, and possibly more involving, or at least more stimulating: a memoir procedural. Elliott's journey through his life never reads like confession, and the drugs, though ubiquitous, are incidental. There's none of the heroic, I-can't-believe-I-smoked-the-whole-rock pridefulness you often find none-too-thinly veiled within dissolute user memoirs. The narration is more like an evidentiary hearing, in which torrents of memories, some sweet, most awful, are recalled seemingly at random, with no discernible structural logic. Within this discursive internal monologue (dialogue, really), you can almost hear Elliott trying to build the case for his own existence. Details that would read like braggadocio in anyone else's book—"the last time I was here was 2001, when I came straight from doing a story in the Middle East, hanging out with kids throwing bottles of gas at Israeli soldiers in Hebron" is a typical observation—roll off Elliott's wrist so casually he barely seems to notice how exotic his life is. But when he digresses, to recall the birth of house music or muse on the fame of Paris Hilton at the time of her arrest, for example, both the prose and the perception that fuels it are ragingly vivid and engaged.
No surprise then that the murder mystery and subsequent trial form the most focused, purposeful sections of the book. It can be a relief from the maelstrom of poisoned madeleines that seethes throughout Elliott's remembrance. But it's not the story, either. The story, of course, is the father, a man who can be guessed at, obsessed over, and reviled, but never truly known. When Elliott approaches the subject head-on, he is thwarted. But the trial—its severity, its half-ominous/half-ludicrous players, its inherent mystery—becomes an effigy of sorts. Armed with professional skills he has developed while navigating the crazy minefield of his life, Elliott reports and speculates on a true crime story, all the while semiconsciously framing that story as a narrative about his father's antagonism, his own culpability, and the unknowable degree to which their brutal dynamic has formed and deformed his life.
This process is the end of the book and the beginning of Elliott's transformation. And though it sidesteps traditional memoir elements of revelation, redemption, and closure, it affords both reader and author something much more valuable: a transcendent inquiry into the nature of the self.