An Encyclopedia of Little Abominations

Emily Carter's flirtation with drugs led her from Park Avenue to a bad marriage with the festering streets of New York's Alphabet City. Now, in a collection of stories, Carter recalls the ABCs of addiction--and spells out the terms of a new life in Minnea

Eventually, Carter realized that if she were going to survive--perhaps even recover--she would need treatment. Having deceived them for several years, Carter finally revealed to her parents that she was addicted to heroin. Though initially astounded, her parents soon turned disbelief into action, sending their daughter packing to the Hazelden clinic in Center City, Minnesota. She eventually got clean (after a painful relapse) but the effects of her use still remain. In addition to the turmoil she wreaked on her family, and herself, Carter tested positive for HIV in 1989, a disease she figures she contracted from a dirty needle. The list of other health issues looks like that of a war victim: "I now have a compromised immune system, a severed fallopian tube, holes in my nasal cartilage the size of dimes, a liver that's been exposed to hepatitis C virus, extreme fatigue at various times of day, smoker's cough and internal uterine scarring in the form of painful adhesions," she wrote in a column for Poz.

 

Unlike her body, the fiction Carter dredged from the rubble of these years appears to have emerged stronger for the battle. In roughly two dozen vignettes, Glory Goes and Gets Some brings to life Glory Bronski, a woman in her 30s, fresh out rehab, HIV positive, and looking to the future with a gimlet of pessimism. Though sugarcoated with humor, Glory's tales are an acid concoction. In the gritty opening sequence, "East on Houston," she teeters up and down an avenue in lower Manhattan--once a prime copping spot--wearing a borrowed red dress and dodging gibes from oversexed men. The indulgently raw tone sets the stage for everything that comes after. In later stories, Glory recounts her initial impressions of folks from Minnesota--the first people she's met who think before they speak--runs circles around a heart-breaking lothario, and makes a stab at true love.

While the arc of her collection is somewhat conventional--Glory goes from bombed-out sadness to flickers of optimism--Carter's voice is more distinct. Her images lance the boils of her character's infected lives. In the book's opening scene, Glory struts around wearing earrings that resemble "jewelry from a sunken Spanish galleon," while men's voices glitter at her "like tossed beer cans on traffic islands." Carter continually switches gears between the bathetic and comic, making liberal use of Unnecessary Capitalization. In one scene, Glory becomes overwhelmed with the revelation that "Oh, My God, I Am A Lesbian." Later she calms herself down with the internal mantra, "It doesn't matter...because No One Is Looking At You."

While humor can leaven some tales, Glory's chronically self-critical revelations--the painful Wish-You-Hadn't-Said-That lines--give the book the immediacy of a thorn. Reading it we feel like voyeurs. The proximity of some details to Carter's life and the tone of her speaking voice invite the obvious question: How much of this is true? Consider the following sequence, delivered from the mouth of Glory in the collection's fetid, virtuoso centerpiece "The Bride": "Other people couldn't stand me. They said I was just another slumming rich girl, staggering around downtown in the heat of summer nights when I could just as easily be off in East Hampton."

Like Carter, Glory is a visitor to both worlds yet a denizen of neither, and feels like an abomination as a result. "I saw myself, heroically," Glory narrates, "like the monster driven out from the ringleted Swiss family to whom he secretly became attached. He wanted them to like him, and they did not. Party crasher, Banquo's ghost, I took my revenge by inflicting myself upon them: Nothing, but nothing, could make me shut my big mouth."

When asked to connect this material to her own life, however, Carter casts a withering sidelong glance across the bar and pulls back into abstractions. "You know this is not a memoir," she says, head shaking back and forth. "It's fiction. I do find the whole recovery, 12-step phenomena distinctly American--this sort of optimistic, common sense, common decency is very uniquely American. I wanted to explore what happens when a cynical, secular, humanist background is presented with the optimistic spiritual philosophy. I thought the clash was interesting."

In this tension between fact and fiction lies the artistry of Carter's voice, one amped a notch higher than most from the author's years of performing as a spoken-word poet on the stage. The collection's second story, "Glory B and the Gentle Art," reflects those roots, starting with a breathless riff on the pleasures of riffing:

 

All right, maybe I do. Maybe I do talk first and think later. Yes, it's true. I admit it freely. It's because I'm from the city. Now, you can say to me, Glory B., it's no crime to think about what you're going to say before you say it, to figure out it relates to the topic being discussed, or if it does at all, or if what you're going to say has the slightest factual basis whatsoever. I've got that argument down cold, because listen, my words are music.

 

Beneath Glory's melody is a tune whose truth only Carter can know for certain. Yet Carter's instinct to preserve her life and times in fiction puts her in good company. Like Jack Kerouac, Nelson Algren (whom she cites as an influence), William S. Burroughs, and more recent dope poets Ann Marlowe and Darcey Steinke, Carter has turned plain poppies into a literary opiate.

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