Reading: The Last Opium Den by Nick Tosches

That desired literary condition of reading in the place and in the moment has been frustratingly difficult on my current gig. Last year, in Antarctica for months on end, I had the luxury of time to read more than most any rational person would want to of the literature of polar exploration. Now, jetting from continent to continent with only a week here, a fortnight there, I've become geographically dislocated from my reading; I can't keep up with the frantic traveling. From a literary point of view I'm still making my way across Chile with Sara Wheeler's Travels in a Thin Country. Since actually being there an astonishingly long eight weeks ago, working on Generation Earth has had me back to Antarctica, in Argentina, on the reefs off of Belize, and now in inner Mongolia, where the only thing that resonates in Wheeler's book is her descriptions of the bone-dry lands in the north of Chile. "You end up driving around a lot in the desert," she writes. "You have to. Distances between anything except sand are long, and when you do get somewhere, nothing happens." She observes that the temperature drops so fast after sunset that one can imagine watching the mercury fall in the thermometer. After a twelve-hour kidney-churning drive through the lunar wastes of the southern Gobi between Jiu Quan and Ejina this speaks to me.

The eco-team convoy on pee-break somewhere in the wastes of the Gobi, one of three twelve-plus-hour drives we endured on this leg of our video shoot. Miles and miles and miles, and not another person or a camel in sight. Where is China hiding its 1.2 billion people?

I considered bringing Tiziano Terzani's Behind the Forbidden Door with me, removing it from my carry-on only moments before heading out the door of the Red Hook homestead in a fit of paranoia. Ignorant of just how wide open the gates of this historically xenophobic and introspective superpower have been blown open in the last fifteen years, I imagined myself pulled aside and strip-searched, my books burned, myself marked as a subversive at the customs gate from the very first moment on Chinese soil. Instead we strolled into the country without so much as a glance being cast at our fifty-odd bits of film-related luggage--cases and cases of cameras, batteries, walkie-talkies, tripods, radio transmitters, microphones and what-not. Terzani, whose book was indeed banned in China and himself ejected in the 1980s, would have slid right through. After my friend Zoe passed on his A Fortune Teller Told Me down in McMurdo I bought all his other books. They are still waiting patiently at home on the shelves.

Instead I brought The Last Opium Den by Nick Tosches, assuming it to be in some way about China and especially hoping that its brevity might enable me to play geographic catch-up in my reading. So short that it may only be called a book because it is hardbound and has a dust jacket, this gift from my very good friend K_____ has also languished unread on my bookcase for years, although I know that my friend, himself a sort of George Plimpton of exotic drug experiences, considers it a masterpiece of narco-reportage.

Tosches sets out in search of an authentic opium-smoking experience, hobnobbing with Hong-Kong hooligans, Lao lowlifes, Viet veterans, Thai touts and Cambodian contrabandeers. He envisions himself lounging on a comfortable velvet chaise being attended to by divine asiatic nymphs in silk brocade, and imagines opium as a godly and intellectual habit, an ancient way of life destroyed by the faster cheaper deadlier road to oblivion offered by its bastard child, heroin.

Opium, it turns out, is a difficult thing to find. In New York nobody knows of it--among other things Tosches essay is a brief but fascinating history of the drug, and he finds that the last den was busted in 1957. Tosches goes to Hong-Kong, recently swallowed up by China. There nothing seems to be unavailable. Nonetheless no opium is to be had amongst the sex-slavers and bulk H dealers he apparently has no difficulty meeting. Even these last romantic charms of the city Tosches sees disappearing in the new Hong-Kong. "Communism," he writes, "is a cement mixer that spews forth drab and indistinguishable gray concrete. Wherever Communism comes, everything--the physical architecture of the place, then its soul--turns drab and gray, and in its weakness crumbles to a drabness and a grayness uglier and grimmer by far." As our train through north-central China rolled on for twenty-four hours through a brown and rocky plain, a desolation carved by dry rivulets and jeep trails to nowhere, once in a great while passing the occasional factory, placed in the middle of nothing, spewing soot into the air, this seemed a quite perfect description. Little did Tosches know that the rabid shoot-the-prisoners capitalism of Hong-Kong would devour China whole, while the great red and yellow menace seems to have done nothing to even try and bury the former colony in its ubiquitous gray cement sludge.

Cameraman Will Edwards considers the meaning of life during a rest stop.

Tosches moves on to Thailand, where the nymphs are available, but not the elusive buzz. There are "more than two hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Thailand, not a single opium den." (The former now abound in Beijing and Xian as well, in only the best of neighborhoods).

There are some delightful snippets thrown in as Tosches, with admirable single-mindedness, criss-crosses south-east asia on his quest. One of my favorites is a putative etymology for the word "hip," or hipster, as in cool, with-it, and down. This slang may have reached us, he writes, via opium smoking, during which one reclines, sideways, like Caesar eating peeled grapes, and lies on one's hip. "Hip" having therefore become a way of self-identifying as a user.

In Cambodia, he finally scores, but only when introduced to a career addict. Still there is no den. Tosches gets high nonetheless. Since nothing is more dull than someone rhapsodically yammering on recounting their drug experiences, except possibly the company of those nimrods who chronically recite bits from Monty Python, I am thankful that Tosches spares us the details of his journey to the other side. "You want enlightenment? Go get it yourself," he writes.

At last, in an Indochinese city and even country he declines to name, the intrepid reporter tracks down an opium den, the last of them, he proposes, only to find that its squalor, pathos and lack of opulence rivals that conjured up by thoughts of a crack-house more than it does his romantic notion of a moody, velvety health-spa of the mind. Naturally, he gets high again anyway and proclaims it glorious.


Anonymous said...

Aaaaah, Tosches. Damn do I miss the dry New York humor and irreverent intellect.

Unknown said...

I also miss dry humor and especially irreverent intellect. I am seriously looking for an opium den to spend the end days of my life. I did enjoy the article all the same.