Book Review: The Panic in Needle Park

This is strange. I’m actually writing a book review. I’m sorry I haven’t been consistent with these, but I will try to make sure I actually write some every now and then. Like I’ve always said, books are a huge source of inspiration for my writing. I want them to be the same for you if they aren’t already.

If you haven’t seen my erasure poem from an early page in this book, you can see how some books really have alternate meanings if you look close enough. For other erasures, you can simply go to that section here, where you can see some of my previous poems based on Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

This review isn’t going to be like my last one on hint fiction, where I write the review in the form of hint fictions. This will be more straight forward. Let’s get started!

The Panic in Needle Park

This book immediately jumped out to me because I saw the movie a while ago on Netflix (back when Netflix had good movies available) and immediately fell in love with anything and everything old-school New York City. Al Pacino completely sold me on what it was like to be an addict. It was a perfect role for him. When I found out the movie was based on a book by James Mills, I knew I needed it.

This book is not perfect by any means, but, just like the movie, depicts a very real couple addicted to heroin going about their lives. What I liked about this book more than the movie was the role of the narrator in the story. There is a lot more depth to the book and helps to put a lot more on the line for Bobby and Helen.

The Good

One thing that immediately jumped out to me — through no fault of the author or publisher — was that the library I got this book from classified this as a “health” book. The details throughout are incredibly graphic to the point where I don’t know if it would be suitable for a high school setting. For example, the narrator goes into great detail about how some users get the most out of their heroin.

Mills writes:

Instead of shooting the fluid in immediately he squeezed in a few drops, let it back up into the eyedropper again, squeezed in a little more, let it back up, squeezed more, and continued the in-and-out process until the fluid in the dropper was dark red with blood.

The technique, known as “booting” is believed to prolong the drug’s initial effect. he continued booting until there was so much blood in the dropper he was afraid it would coagulate and clog the needle. Then he shot it all in and withdrew the needle. had the needle clogged, he would have dumped the mixture of blood and drugs back into the cooker, heated it until the blood dissolved, and started over. Addicts call this “shooting gravy”: ‘Because that’s what it is–right? Cooked blood?'”

This is probably the most graphic part of the entire book, and it made me think of the part in the movie where the camera focuses in on the addicts injecting themselves with heroin. I also learned that the movie depicted those people actually doing heroin, which I don’t think would go over well in Hollywood today.

So what I think works most about this book is how clear, descriptive, and graphic the language is. Throughout the entire book, we get great details on the characters and the city. If you’ve been to New York City recently and you’re not from the area, you’d find it shocking to know that this was what went on because all the hardships are laced over with Starbucks, banks, and lifeless luxury apartments.

The Not-So-Good

One problem with the book can also be seen in this quote. The details are very explicit, but there is a preachy, educational tone to the book as well, which does kind of explain why this would be labeled a health book if one is quickly skimming through it. The dialogue throughout the book can go on for very long periods of time, and it feels like it’s there not because that’s how Mills saw things, but because it’s a good opportunity to explain to the reader what’s actually going on and why characters are acting a certain way.

The Takeaway

One takeaway I have got from this book that I want to bring into my own writing is Mills’ ability to write in an unbiased way and to let the story play itself out as it should. This was also a major component of the story itself. The narrator makes a point of telling Bobby and Helen that he wants no part in what they’re doing and isn’t the cops and isn’t going to get involved. He simply wants to observe.

That’s what I want to do going into any story. Even in fiction. There’s a fine line between fiction and nonfiction. This story is based on real events, but the characters are fictitious. We all take what we want from the world and turn it into something new, but there’s a truth to everything, and hinting towards that in our writing should always be the goal — even if that truth is that everything is false. I want to act more like a writer with a purpose thanks to this book, and I hope it helps you too.

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