In his first book, author Jason Smith explores the depravity and desperation required to maintain an opiate addiction so fierce, he finds himself jumping continents to avoid jail time and learns the hard way that some demons cannot be outrun. While teaching in Europe, he meets a prostitute who secures drugs for him at the dangerous price of helping out the Russian Mafia; in China he gets his Percocet and Xanax fixes but terrifies a crowd of children and parents at his job in the process; and in Mexico Smith thought a Tijuana jail cell would be the perfect place to kick his Fentanyl habit but soon realizes that the power of addiction is stronger than his desire to escape it. The Bitter Taste of Dying paints a portrait of the modern-day drug addict with clarity and refreshing honesty. With a gritty mixture of self-deprecation and lighthearted confessional, Smith's memoir deftly describes the journey into the harrowing depths of addiction and demonstrates the experience of finally being released from it.
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While the title, “The Bitter Taste of Dying,” makes sense in the context of the book, there is an absence of bitterness in the book. It’s an incredibly lucid account of events that could certainly be under conditions other than clear. I won’t say the narrative is salty and go through the four taste bud regions on the tongue, but it’s definitely got an authentic bite. It’s tough to be hard on an addict who is so honest.
What does it take to tell an addiction story without losing the reader? He never says “I’m sorry.” Instead, he tells his story, both with vivid internal dialogue and a clear description of events – some terrifying, some inconceivable. What he did best, however, was educate. He took time to talk through each step, how the initial drugs led to others, and what he needed to do to continue to get them. He painted vivid environments and scenes within his own fog.
One absolutely spot on point was his interaction with physicians and pharmacists who looked at his dosing. Pharmacists can readily identify drug dosages in the “normal” range. His dosages fell into the immediate suspect range. Many pharmacists have a way of crafting questions to make patients on narcotics who fall in these outlier dosages feel guilty. He hit the tenor of these interactions perfectly.
Drugs feature prominently in the book and act as characters on his way to full-blown addiction starting with the Demerol that his physician legally injected. He generally uses the brand names Xanax, Percocet, and Soma rather than their generic equivalents alprazolam, oxycodone with acetaminophen, and carisoprodol. I think this intentional decision kept both his habit and narrative more accessible.
Hope Jahren wrote the bestselling Lab Girl and did the opposite, using generic name precision instead of brand familiarity, appropriate for a PhD level researcher. What’s most interesting is his use of the generic name “fentanyl,” rather than the brand name Duragesic. There are a handful of medication names that have a generic name shorter than the brand name, and this more easily pronounced generic seems to factor into his desire to bring the reader in through clarity and conciseness.
In some ways, the book is like running The Amazing Race on narcotics, hopping countries and locales with unexpected challenges successes and failures. His yesterday and tomorrow personalities and the people he meets provide enough characters for multiple seasons. Inasmuch as we learn about the places he goes, he vividly describes both the cultural significances to his addiction and the painful places he ends up. You’ll never look at mop bucket water the same again, but in his vivid descriptions, you’ll know how it tastes.
Paul Costanzo, a veteran voice talent, pulls it off flawlessly. His experienced ability as a voice actor matches perfectly with the very real protagonist. The book’s deep sarcasm, dry humor, and insights come alive with an authentic reading, as if the listener was in the same room just hearing the story for the first time. Well written. Well executed. It’s what a drama is supposed to be, powerfully engaging without a hint of excess or showiness.
Audiobook was purchased for review by ABR.
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Jason Smith's "The Bitter Taste of Dying: A Memoir" is thoroughly enjoyable. There are plenty of addiction-centered books available on the market -- and, as Smith notes, his story is the same as everyone else's, differing only in individuals' specifics -- but Smith's approach is unique in that the book is framed as conversations between his 12-Steps sponsor and himself. The sponsor's insight snaps Smith back to reality, adult thinking, and self-responsibility. Smith goes on to become a sponsor himself, using the same questions and phrases his sponsor had once asked of him.
My only pause is the book's subtitle: "A Memoir." By definition, a memoir is non-fiction, although that fact seems lost to some authors and many readers. James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" comes to mind as a falsely described memoir, and the front matter of his book doesn't help readers determine whether the text is factual or not. The book begins with reviews praising Frey's "memoir," and the Library of Congress indexing lists the book as "biography," also, by definition, non-fiction. Anchor Books, a division of Random House, included a statement on the copyright page that Frey's book contains embellishments, but that word is toned down by the next sentence, which states that names, places, etc., have been changed. That isn't what made Frey's book fiction, however. Non-fiction-writing journalists omit details, change names, and make places vague all the time, as appropriate, but they produce non-fiction nonetheless. Readers/listeners know and accept that names, for example, sometimes are changed to protect individuals' privacy. Anchor Books' message concludes by declaring Frey's book should not be construed as anything more than "a work of literature" -- self-evident, being a book, but without commitment to fiction or non-fiction.
I bring this up because it seems as if the word "memoir" is interpreted as "my story," with little notice paid to facts vs. devices of fiction to make a captivating tale. For example, Smith recalled dialogue from when he was 6 years old, a conversation he's ruminated on from childhood into adulthood. This means the memory, in all probability, shifted, as all of our memories do. We don't just forget details in our memories. We actually change the details the more thought we give to them. He has dialogues, too, from age 14, quotes from his meetings with his sponsor, etc. These conversations -- assumed to be transcribed verbatim since memoir is always non-fiction -- add to the flow and enjoyability of the book. I just wonder about his ability to quote long-ago dialogues, his use of "memoir" in the subtitle, and whether he used traits of fiction for literary effect. Memoir is an important genre of non-fiction, and readers should expect truth in labeling (and sub-titling). Memoir is not the same as "based on a true story" or a hybrid of fact and fiction.