July 19, 2012
(+++) STREET STUPID TO STREET SMART
Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education. By Matthew Parker. Gotham Books. $20.
A book with a determinedly upbeat conclusion, but written to appeal to those interested in wallowing in the seamiest aspects of modern life, Larceny in My Blood is the memoir of a drug addict and petty criminal who is utterly without self-awareness but is undoubtedly quite talented in telling stories – or at least telling his own story, which is what he does here. A graphic novel in which the writing is better and more attractive than the drawings, the book chronicles Parker’s years of crime, addiction and existence on the very fringes of society, taking him at last out of prison (in which he spent more than 11 years after accumulating more than 30 arrests) and into college – indeed, to the Ivy League, where he earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing at Columbia University.
It is possible to respect Parker’s accomplishments and admire the way he eventually got his act and his life together without liking him very much. He never makes himself the slightest bit likable, retaining much of the boringly boastful street cred that he spent decades building up. That he has considerable strength of character is shown in his eventual emergence from a life that has killed or incapacitated many others, including both his brothers. But has he really changed in some fundamental way, or simply found a new set of suckers of whom to take advantage? Like other criminals, Parker objectifies his victims and never feels believable remorse for what he has done; similarly, he stays distanced from his eventual success and the people who helped him attain it. The man has talent, but he has always been, and remains, a taker, not a giver.
But he certainly can write. He appears to care for his mother, but he also attributes much of his addiction and criminal attitudes to her, quoting her at one point as saying, “A college degree from a good law school will put you in a position of legalized larceny,” right after he has her commenting, “The trick is not to go to prison at all, but if you do have to go, go federal.” Parker’s stories of his criminal and drug-focused family, of the music he listened to, of his sexual encounters, are told matter-of-factly and often with more underlying pride than they warrant. But when Parker isn’t busy justifying himself or shirking responsibility for his behavior, he comes up with some really interesting writing. After a section explaining his difficulties with most elements of math, for example, he explains that his formula “for staying clean in my first year out of prison” is E=mc2 – where E = energy, m = music and c = “the speed of endorphins squared.” Or, in a chapter in which he has extended conversations with his penis, he makes a series of juvenile but amusing observations that he illustrates with aplomb: “If given free rein, most dicks would have harems of virgins waiting on them head and scrotum,” he writes, and the picture shows an anthropomorphized penis being fed and fanned by traditional “harem girls.”
It is good that there are flashes of humor (if not self-knowledge) in Larceny in My Blood, because they help make up for long sections that are flat-out dull. Those include observations like this: “There appears to be no room in natural selection for selfless acts of kindness.” And family analyses like this, about one of his brothers: “John had an innate engineering sense…and was a natural thief.” And what passes for revelation, like this: “As a child, I had always wanted to be a fighter pilot.” Or this: “I’ve gotten so many tickets over the years that I could use them for wallpaper.” Or: “I made lots of acquaintances, but few real friends.” Parker’s descriptions of prison, rehab programs, police, fellow criminals, parole boards, courts and attorneys are telling and ring true, as well they should with his experience. In fact, a chapter that starts with the line, “Cops love junkies,” is one of the most revelatory and amusingly wry parts of the book. But Parker is less believable when he says certain things that he seems to want readers to take at face value, such as, at one point, “I had a lot of respect for judges in general, and the law in particular.”
Parker just doesn’t have much insight into himself. Certainly he is a survivor – very much like his mother but quite unlike both his brothers, whose deaths come across as pointless and utterly without meaning (although Parker says they were significant to him). A comment that “I wasn’t a thorn in the side of The Man, but rather old meat trapped in his intestines,” is about as close to self-understanding as Parker ever gets. He tells his story with skill and often with relish, unflinchingly addressing his drug habit, thievery and awful (and not-so-awful) experiences both within the prison system and outside it. But he never stops indulging unashamedly in a bad-boy self-image that he seems, even in middle age, to relish – for example, the most he says about the horrors to which he subjected his mother (who admittedly is something less than a saint herself) is, “She was too kind and I used her.” Larceny in My Blood is often fascinating, and certainly it is a thrill ride of sorts for people looking for a vicarious experience of the underbelly of society. But it’s not the intestines or underbelly that the book is missing. It’s the heart.