The Story of Junk: A Novel
The first time I came across Linda Yablonsky’s The Story of Junk, it was a twenty-page submission to a grant-making organization for which I was a judge. I was on the nonfiction panel and The Story of Junk, a dazed chronicle of the author’s life as a downtown heroin addict, was offered as a factual account. Although Ms. Yablonsky did not receive the award, the details of her manuscript stuck in my mind for a long time afterward. In that piece, which is the first chapter of Junk, an offic er of the Drug Enforcement Agency has caught up with Ms. Yablonsky and is tugging at the threads that will make her life unravel. He is obsessive, like another addiction, and there is no way she can shake him.
What caused Ms. Yablonsky’s manuscript to stay with me was the idea that it was a real story, the story of her life. The dissonance of that life and her life as I imagined it before heroin, as a suburban Philadelphia Jewish teenage girl, was part of what gave the work its frisson. One day she’s shopping at Record World, the next day she’s buying baggies from a guy on Avenue A. It was like those books about serial killers and stalkings that publishers love to call “true crime,” because they kno w that emphasizing the fact that these things really happened is seductive, maybe even erotic. Which is why, when I picked up a copy of the completed manuscript recently, I was surprised to see, as its subtitle, the declaration that The Story of Junk was a novel.
Though categories like fiction and nonfiction can to some extent converge, the extent to which they do not is illustrated by Ms. Yablonsky’s book. As nonfiction, her book needed to answer some basic questions for the reader—questions that had mainl y to do with what happened, how and why. The answers could be artful, they could be straightforward, but whatever they were, their power would come from their authenticity. Some of the best nonfiction, of course, borrows heavily from fiction, but still, l urking behind every deftly rendered character, every advance of the story, is the knowledge, shared by reader and writer, that the story is true, and that the writer’s allegiance is to fact.
Now that Ms. Yablonsky’s story is presented as a novel, it is not immediately obvious, particularly to someone who doesn’t know the book’s provenance, if it is factual or accurate. Though Junk is largely a recitation of details and scenes from a drug-dealing life, and while it is quotidian rather than eventful, detail is different from fact. And, though the details make the story feel “real,” that feeling is the book’s undoing. Being a junkie, one learns after the narrator’s third cab ride to Alphabet City in the middle of the night to score some drugs, is about as interesting as a dead-end job …