Book Reviews, Interviews

The Regeneration of Patrick O’Neil

Gun, Needle, Spoon is a memoir. It’s about drugs. Hard drugs. Heroin. It’s about a kid in art school who starts using heroin. At this point, most readers will roll their eyes, telling themselves, “Yeah, yeah.  I’ve heard it before.” But give me a chance to explain why this book is worth reading. First, it doesn’t romanticize drug use. Patrick O’Neil, the narrator, is different from Patrick O’Neil, the protagonist. From the first chapter, you feel a sense of regret and shame. Patrick owns his past but doesn’t identify with it anymore. After the fact, he can’t imagine the logic involved with walking into a bank with a gun. But this leads to the second point: it is important to read books with protagonists that challenge a reader’s worldview. I’m willing to bet that a significant majority of the readers have not experienced the things that Patrick writes about. But through the act of reading, one is able to learn something from O’Neil’s experiences. It has the potential to make a reader more empathetic. It can also make readers optimistic. After years of heavy drug use and crime, Patrick O’Neil—the flesh and blood man who proudly runs through the streets of L.A. getting high on his own adrenaline—has overcome significant obstacles to become a writer and teacher. 

Go out and grab his hand. Throw it in the air. Declare victory. At least that’s what I would do. This book makes my bad days seem insignificant and his triumph over addiction truly noteworthy. Finally, and most importantly, the book is beautifully written. It utilizes point of view, shifting from first to second, allowing the reader to walk a mile in the narrator’s shoes. The language is that of gritty San Francisco, before the tech sector turned the Mission into ground zero for gentrification debates. This book is waiting in the rain for a dealer on Haight Street. This is the unique way a gun feels when entering a bank. This is rolling out of bed and looking up to see how much heroin can be sucked out of yesterday’s cotton ball.

I was able to speak with Patrick O’Neil on the phone in order to get a better understanding of his life and the writing of this book. We talked about his family life, being a young artist, working as a roadie with bands like Flipper and Dead Kennedys, sliding into a significant heroin addiction, and putting his life back together. 

But before any of that, back when he was only fourteen, Patrick was the youngest nationally known cartoonist in America. He drew a monthly cartoon for Kids Magazine. Art was an escape because home life wasn’t great. His parents were divorced. This creative outlet eventually earned him a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute when he was seventeen.  At first he studied lithography and silk-screening.  Later on, he began to study drawing movement which led to animation. “I walked into art school as a printmaker and left a filmmaker,” O’Neil said. “And during that time punk rock came up and so did drugs—especially heroin.” 

As for literature, “I was reading a lot of pre-requisite hipster stuff—Kerouac, Burroughs, and all the cool cats from San Francisco.” This was 1979. Punk was just breaking into the scene and Patrick heard his calling. For most of his time in art school, he identified as a rock ‘n’ roll kid with hair “down to my ass.” After his first punk show, consisting of fellow art students, he cut his hair off.  It was a bunch of disenfranchised kids looking for something more immediate and available. The rock scene at that point had gotten bloated—giant arena rock shows. Punk felt intimate. 

Let’s take a step back to get a larger perspective to better understand why the punk scene was so appealing. Patrick’s dad was a linguist at MIT. The O’Neils traveled all over the world and Patrick went to a new school every year, including places like the Faroe Islands (located between Iceland, Scotland, and Norway) where Patrick didn’t speak the language. He was always the new kid, always the outsider. From a very early age, Patrick was looking in on someone else’s world. His childhood could be defined as one of longing and looking for something intimate to be a part of. He had no group. No grounding. And on top of that, “My parents, who were great people, were very involved with themselves. When they split up, it was chaos in my house. My mom couldn’t handle it.” The separation occurred when the O’Neils were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I was on the streets. It was the mid-60s and there were drugs and music everywhere.” So while home life was crazy, Patrick would do anything to get away from that. And there in Boston was something that would take his mind off of things. “There was LSD, pot, alcohol, and lots of pills. At an early age I discovered that those things got rid of pain, anguish, depression, and mental strife. Keep in mind that this was during a time when using drugs was more acceptable – that experimentation was acceptable. So I went for it full force.” This context helps to explain Patrick’s need for the specific type of intimacy that the Bay Area punk scene offered. 

He went from being that young kid in art school who was enjoying the world and wanting to express himself to quickly becoming a junky; twenty years later Patrick was a heroin addict running around San Francisco looking for a fix and willing to rob for his next score.  He went from being someone involved in art, literature, and music to being on the street. In that time he hadn’t read a book or made any art. Everything was stripped away. Only the need for drugs was left. Then he was arrested.

While in San Francisco’s County Jail, Patrick took an adult education class. There he started to write about his experiences. “Incarceration is incredibly boring. The only thing that breaks long moments of boredom is intense moments of violence. Continuously. Over and over. On a loop. What I did to escape that level of incarceration was read. I could read a book a day.” Patrick claimed that when he entered prison he was basically illiterate. He needed to teach himself to read and write again. If that wasn’t hard enough, Patrick is dyslexic. “Thank god for computers! They allowed me to become a writer—with spellcheck and things like that.” Those moments, while in prison, were when Patrick found the written word, which he claimed as the foundation for creativity. There he started writing—what he knew, what he felt. For years he continued on that line of action. When he got out he got a computer and started blogging for his neighborhood. He read books that called to him, for example Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight and James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries. He wanted to write something like that. His writing was improving, which motivated him to enroll at Antioch University Los Angeles to get his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  

“The problem with writing a drug memoir is that you were fucking loaded while it was happening. And so it’s hard to write a linear memoir.” Patrick explained that he would start writing a scene and then another memory would pop up. “The brain has wormholes.” He slowly put together the disjointed pieces, but he pointed out that the book is disjointed for a reason.  

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the emotional distance between Patrick the narrator and Patrick the protagonist. They are not the same person and the narrator isn’t empathetic. This isn’t a sob story, although it has a bittersweet affective quality. “The disjointed feeling between the protagonist and narrator is because I had been off drugs for eight years. There is an actual feeling in my soul that I’m not even sure who that guy is anymore, that guy who thought that it was a good idea to rob banks isn’t me. I’m amazed that I was able to do those things. Who goes to a bank with a gun to ask for money? But what isn’t detached, what I am still dealing with, is the depression and dejectedness and the insanity. It seems like it just happened yesterday. Those feelings keep me from going back to heroin.”  

Most creative writers avoid didactic prose. But that doesn’t mean readers won’t learn something from texts like this. Readers should wonder about the nature and possibility of earthly redemption while reading Gun, Needle, Spoon. “These stories need to be told. I am dealing with the aftermath of being a convicted criminal in academia. A lot of colleges won’t touch me. That was thirteen years ago and many can’t recognize that I’ve changed, that I am different.” While he’s not writing a ‘message book.’ Patrick needs to get this story out there in order to share that people who hit rock bottom can bounce back. Stories like this have value. They exercise and challenge a reader to find an emotional connection with characters that are a world away. Do readers have the imagination and heart to find a connection with strung-out Patrick O’Neil – especially when he’s at his worst? Most readers haven’t done heroin, experienced withdrawals, or robbed banks. Can reading a text like this open the reader to that experience? What understanding does a reader gain from reading Patrick O’Neil, William T. Vollmann, or William Burroughs? Books by these authors reward adventurous readers by getting them out of their solipsistic universes. It might not always be pleasurable, but stories like this are really important.

“To this day, I have always been attracted to the darker side of humanity, especially considering what people are willing to accept as collateral damage for their behavior. I’ve never met a sex worker, drug addict, or someone who was incarcerated who didn’t have incredible emotional baggage.” It goes back to the idea of why people listen to good country music. It makes you, the listener, fell less alone.  Nobody wants to listen to happy pop music all the time. “In my neighborhood there are people pushing grocery carts down the street. There’s one guy with no hands. Fuck, what am I complaining about? It’s such a reality check.”                                          

Patrick feels a need for responsible writing and doesn’t want to glorify drugs, crime, and incarceration. He didn’t want to glorify or brag about getting away with anything. He’s taking an honest look at his behavior and searching for forgiveness for himself and others. “It was cathartic and in a lot of ways these were memories that haunted me.  In a lot of ways this was a healthy thing to do.” One of the things that made this story unique was that the narrator is an older, wiser version of the protagonist.  Readers expect this but that doesn’t make it easy.  

Some of Patrick’s readers asked him, “What happened to Jenny in the second half of the book?”  The simple answer is: he doesn’t know. He talked with her once, asked forgiveness, and that was that.  He wrote about his friend Chris getting murdered, and Will Shatter, of the ‘80s punk band Flipper, dying of an overdose. “Friends die,” Patrick said. “It’s not pretty to look at this stuff later on in life.” Patrick finds a way to dance on the razor’s edge of emotion while not becoming sentimental.                   

Pages: 300
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Publication Date: June 09, 2015
ISBN: 978-1936873575
Price: $14.95