DERMAPHORIA by Craig Clevenger

Listener – September 16, 2006

A writer I interviewed for the Listener last year said that if you could swab the books at your local library to find the ones written under the influence of drugs, “spines would turn red all over the shop”. This may be a slight exaggeration, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to make a long list of writers who use(d) drugs to fuel their writing.

American author Craig Clevenger has said that he’s not a big drug taker. “But,” he adds, “I’ll make no apologies for the ones I’ve done. I’ll indulge like anyone else.” Although Clevenger only fesses up to recreational drug use, the protagonists in his two novels thus far recklessly imbibe. His first book, The Contortionist’s Handbook, about a forger addicted to painkillers, is a beautifully written thing with deftly structured plotlines. Dermaphoria, which reads more like a long short story, is about a clandestine chemist who fries his brain when he swallows a handful of pills – “fireflies and black widows”. 

On one level Dermaphoria is a B-grade mystery. Eric Ashworth wakes in jail swathed in bandages with no memory of who he is or what he has done. All he recalls is woman’s name, Desiree (who is later revealed as a stripper), and “one memory after the next turns yellow at the edges and crumbles to flakes at my touch. I smell rotted pulp, old newspapers crawling with silverfish, the dank dissolving bindings of books I don’t remember reading.” 

The plot unravels in fragments. There’s Detective Anslinger who questions Eric; there’s the lawyer on his case, but Eric’s confused. (“My case. I have a case. I’ve run a red light or I’ve been caught with a severed head in a paper bag. I’m scared to ask.”) We learn that Eric was a chemist for a drug ring. The Mobsters want him to reconstitute his methamphetamine/LSD hybrid, but Eric’s lost the formula. We meet his boss Manhattan White and his son Toe Tag, who “can gut, cut and pack a grown man into a garbage bag in under 40 minutes”. 

Apart from Eric, Clevenger’s characters are sketchy and the plot is not worthy of his extraordinary writing skills. But what makes Dermaphoria work on another level is Clevenger’s exploration of paranoia, body memory and the interconnectedness of things: 

“Everything in the universe is everything else. A man is a killer is a saint is a monkey is a cockroach is a goldfish is a whale, and the Devil is just the angel who asked for More.”

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