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A Recovery Journey That Isn’t – The New York Times

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ALL DAY IS A LONG TIME
By David Sanchez
It has been said — often credited to John Gardner but sometimes Dostoyevsky — that there are only two plots in literature: A character goes on a trip, or a stranger comes to town. My question is where addiction fiction fits in. Are drugs the trips the characters take, or are they the strangers coming to town?
David Sanchez’ debut novel, “All Day Is a Long Time,” begins with a 14-year-old’s Greyhound journey from Tampa to Key West. It’s summer, and our narrator — much later, we’ll learn his name is David — is going to meet up with his girlfriend, who’s on a family vacation but has invited him on the condition he stay hidden from her parents. On the bus, he encounters what Sanchez calls a Mister, the kind of sketchy guy a teenager might shoulder-tap in front of a liquor store. This type is the kind who takes a kid away, gets him to do drugs with him, and then worse things.
Early on, this novel announces that you are about to read an addiction narrative, and not a reassuring one. This is not a story written from the safe distance of years’ worth of collected days in recovery. And if there’s none of the reflexive mystery-solving we’ve come to expect from addiction stories — no neat answers as to how it happens, how it all comes crashing down, and no epiphany or uplifting reason to go on — what then?
The prologue ends with the trauma perpetrated by the Mister and a woman the narrator describes only as “a Giantess”: “In my pants, I feel him and the crackling of crossed wires, the overstimulation.” This experience seems at least partially responsible for the harrowing descent into addiction that follows, though the narrator refuses any such pat diagnosis. He’s clearly heard it before. “You are running from something. Trauma, especially. You were raised wrong, you didn’t know any better. It’s genetic and one or both of your parents are the same way. You are incapable of living life on life’s terms,” begins the long list of received explanations. “These are all flimsy excuses.”
The first quarter of the novel jumps around in time but is consistent in tone: urgent, sharp and expansive. “From an empty room, any empty room, I can hear the life of my brain like a story told backwards,” the narrator says at one point, and he could be talking about the book itself. For we do hear a lot about the brain, and addiction, and crack addiction specifically, all written with a dark kind of sparkling — a retroactive knowledge of the coming destruction, delivered cynically, at times almost derisively.
We learn that our narrator loves to read, loves books, or at any rate finds them useful, a kind of “time-released information.” He recommends specific titles: “Moby-Dick,” Dante’s “Inferno” for those times you happen to find yourself on drugs and near a library. “Invisible Man” is for when you’re withdrawing, “Faulkner if you haven’t slept in a few days.”
Like a fired bullet — the increasingly strung-out narrator even describes his younger self as “our little ricochet” — we know things will go badly for our protagonist, but not how. “Everything happened fast for years,” says the adult David, now a full-blown addict, recalling his childhood. In his telling, it feels fast, and relentlessly readable even as we experience the bottomless needs and vacuous highs.
The pace slows as we learn about David’s brother — who, unlike the narrator, remembers everything — then accelerates again. We breeze over the existence of three other siblings, then spend a brilliantly written chapter focused almost solely on the physics and geometry of wrestling: “One-third hand control, one-third trig and one-third meanness. Three periods in a match. Wrestling was the Platonic ideal of fighting. I discovered that every fight I ever got into out in the world was a substitute for this, the real thing.”
Things go from bad to worse. At one of many rehab facilities, David is asked what his drug of choice is. “I’m not picky,” David says. “I’m a garbage-head. Just throw whatever in there.” Though he ends up mostly on speed and crack, we get the sense that David’s destructive drive is not dependent on one particular high or drug.
While the darkness and debasement of addiction are not new to literature, Sanchez’ approach feels rare. David is remembering — first person, past tense — from the front lines of full-on derangement, with a kind of sober, extremely honest reportage. David’s world narrows to a shed, where his thoughts loop: “The world is a brain, hell is real” becomes “The brain is real, the world is a hell.” His only contact with other people is in the raised trailer where he gets “ice” and where conversation revolves exclusively around Chemtrails and “perfect asses.” A sleepless run on speed and crack ends with David crumpled up in his shed, a “dead car battery on the ocean floor.”
In the world of recovery, a day can revolve around steps, keeping count, sustaining hope incrementally. Life can change dramatically from one day to the next, its very length determined by whether you’re hurting for it, or hurting from it, this thing you’re addicted to or recovering from. Much of this novel feels like the longest, most trying day in the life of a character who doesn’t know why he does what he does, nor even why he would want to stop. The reader is left to sort it out, which is both rewarding and engaging.
It’s a book of questions, and when it comes to addiction there are no answers — only stories. There’s what happened and, if you get out, the further question of how to help others, as David does when he finds himself, in recovery, typing his number into the phones of the newly initiated.
This coming back to life may sound like a conventional addiction arc, but in Sanchez’ hands it never feels forced or hokey. The recovery is fragile, with little promise for the future. Toward the end of the novel, David has a realization: “If my life is full of days, then what are my days full of if not life?” This line, like so many in Sanchez’ book, gives us everything, without ever spilling over into sentimentality.
The pandemic has been an extremely bad time for addicts of all kinds (myself included). Overdose deaths have skyrocketed, and people have lost much-needed structure and community. This exceptional debut is not a cautionary tale about the perils of drugs, but it certainly is the story of so many people right now, and it somehow leaves us with hope. What’s more, the rare if dark gems found along its ocean floors, all sharp and brittle and made of base desire, let us glean a part of what’s at the heart of addiction itself.
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