Not many writers can claim they’ve fed on honey dew and “drunk the milk of paradise.” Of course, the Romantic poet Coleridge can, but he was an opium addict.
As far as I know, the brilliant English writer Graham Joyce isn’t an addict. But he’s definitely fed on creative honey dew and produced quantities of the milk of paradise in his novel Smoking Poppy.
It could be that the exotic setting of Thailand helps to conjure his hallucinogenic narrative in Smoking Poppy; a land full of poppy fields and spirits and shamans and magic making moons. Thailand oozes from the novel with its young prostitutes on sultry, light-soaked streets; the smoky, congealed, oily fry-up of street vendors; the belching, spluttering tuk tuks; and the sugary eyes of its inhabitants. And then, of course, there is the opium: as gentle as a breeze through poppy fields and as deadly as obsession.
Obsession is at the big meaty heart of this novel. Obsession feeds it. The obsession of the father, Dan Innes, the main protagonist, to save his daughter from a Thai prison after she’s been arrested for smuggling drugs. The obsession of the daughter, Charlie, for her drug-induced journey of escape from family, college, modern life’s boredom. The obsession of the Evangelical son, Phil, for redemption. And even the obsession of Dan’s pub mate, Mick, a boisterous, wise-ass who joins the quiz group at the local Clipper pub, drinking his Old Muckster’s Jubilee ale, trying to escape his loneliness by befriending Dan.
Smoking Poppy is told in the first person, through the working class argot of Dan, the father. Dan’s domestic life is on the rocks; he’s moved out from his wife and estranged from his son and daughter. But he’s a man who has been addicted to trying to be a good father, husband. The choice of fixing the narrative camera solely on Dan is a perfect one. As the story unfolds and Dan, Phil, and Mick set out on their quest into the heart of darkest Thailand to save the daughter, Joyce has skillfully not only directed the fast-paced plot but also swung the camera, so to speak, deeper into Dan’s psyche, exposing all the foibles and the idiosyncrasies as well as demons that are plaguing this man — who for all his working-class simplicity is a man on the brink of psychological complexity.
When Dan and cohorts discover that Charlie is not being held at the Thai prison — her passport has been stolen by the girl who is mistaken as being Dan’s daughter — and that she is in even deeper peril, the whole focus of the narrative shifts. The book no longer becomes simply a search for the missing daughter, it becomes a journey into the inner psychological landscape of the father: what it means to be a man, a father, a human being facing not so much the fear of losing a loved one, but the more intense fear that that loved one, Charlie in this case, no longer loves Dan, the father.
In fact the novel is not so much a story about the pain and heartache of drug addiction as it is the pain and heartache of family addiction. Family can be both the beautiful poppy of love as well as the opium of despair: “You have to let [your children] pluck from your heart with bruising fingers, great, sparkling, golden, resinous chunks of love, and never ask under what moon they smoke it or where they spill it.”
Dan has loved both his children from the very first day he smelt that intoxicating perfume from their baby heads: “…The extraordinary scent of its head, The chemical fix. A gift from the garden of paradise. You want it all the time, and you only get it when you cradle that baby in your arms.” It’s Dan’s first hit of love, and it’s what carries him along both as a man and as a father. But as Charlie grows and goes off to Oxford and gets “all the distractions of modern life right at her fingertips,” Dan begins to feel himself being nudged aside: the feeling of being half a man, half a dad, feeling “an absence of core in my life.” And then when he finally encounters Charlie in the deepest jungles of Thailand trapped in an opium nightmare of her own making, his very own demons, which he’s kept at bay with the benign English distractions of beer and quizzes and the blue-collar job of electrician, all rise to the surface like a big fat silver Thai moon of madness.
This descent into a greater addiction is superbly handled by Joyce in the first-person. On one level there is this perilous story of a father and his friends risking their lives in Thailand with drug lords and the thick, dense jungle, and on another level there is this primeval narrative about the life and soul of a common, everyday man who has to face what he doesn’t want to in order to carry on: “I thought I’d been giving all my life. Fatherhood was like being the incised poppy. I took the incision every day like a man, and at first I was the dark loving juice to which [the children] returned. And then I was so afraid that they might not return.”
Life is in the ordinary, every day, so it is said, but Joyce has taken that to a new level by saying it’s in the every day, ordinary father who will undertake not only a perilous journey to save his daughter but also one to save himself. And there’s no religious dogma padding along for the ride. In fact, Dan is averse to any smell of religion overtones to the point of being physically abusive to his Evangelical son, Phil. The tenets that inflame Phil are of no interest or even motivation to Dan: “Religion is like dope, which is like the whiskey, which is like the stupid television. Same fuck of a different colour.” It’s family, love, the spiritual dimensions of the every day atom of what makes a family become the nucleus that feeds the spiritual, the human.
There is a supernatural element to Smoking Poppy, too. Although it isn’t overt in tone, it lingers around the edges of the brutal, exotic Thailand, the way smoke does from an opium pipe. Some of the most striking images in the novel, some of the most stunning sentences, revolve around the fantastical spirit world that Joyce has created around the real industry of the growing of poppies and the making of opium. “The villagers were engaged in two different types of activity, each involving a special tool. Most were collecting resin from the poppy heads with a curious crescent-shaped tool….The others, mostly women, were incising fresh pods with a three-bladed picking tool.” Joyce also makes the drug into an almost sentient character: “I was struck by the number of poppy heads weeping. Not just seeping opium, but suffering with it. I saw very clearly how we all of us are incised by the experiences of life. We are pricked, we weep, we yield.” In the same way Joyce makes the addiction of parenthood into a drug that every father and mother must get a hit of: “Let it in. Give it out.” Too many hits, however, and you might well end up metaphorically lost as a parent as much as you might end up lost and forgotten about in a Thai jungle as Charlie almost does.
If there is one minor fix for this novel, however, it would be with the character of the wife, Sheila. She is given a lot less psychological ground in Smoking Poppy. There is never any sense of her urgency to get Charlie back or even to go on the journey with Dan. She seems to stand at the edge, maybe fully cognizant in her all-knowing motherly role, that all will work out: she birthed the child, raised the child, now it’s the father’s turn. But this is too archetypal in its suggestion of maternal instinct and love, a tiny pinprick in the body of the plot. But then this novel is, in the words of soulmaster James Brown, a man’s world: a peeling back of the layers of fatherhood, one painful and exuberant chapter at a time.
To riff on the colloquial “smoking gun”: Graham Joyce is guilty as charged in writing a page-turner in Smoking Poppy about the addictions of paternal love, a lack of love, and family. He’s also satisfied the literary need of every writer to write something new to what has been written about so many times before but to do it with a better understanding of human nature and with the experience of the ironies of life to draw upon.
Which just goes to show that Graham Joyce is as obsessed as his fictional characters.