Just got this review of my memoir, ADRENALINE JUNKIE, by John Jantunen in Cannery Row Magazine.
by Les Edgerton
Down & Out Books, USA, Memoir, 2018, 344 pages
Review by John Jantunen
In 2014 Jack David, my publisher at ECW Press, rented a van and drove four Canadian mystery writers to Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bouchercon bills itself as the largest crime writers convention in the world and, as a newly published, first-time mystery writer, the trip would serve as a rite of passage for me as well as provide the opportunity to mingle with my more esteemed peers, most of whom would welcome me into their fold with a degree of fellowship I’d never thought possible.
And few could have been more welcoming than Les Edgerton.
I met him on the second night of the conference. Up until then, I admit, I’d been feeling a bit like a fish out of water. While the drive down with Jack, John McFetridge, Dietrich Kalteis and Sam Wiebe had been a thoroughly memorable and even joyful affair, I was beginning to suspect that any hope of capitalizing on the euphoria I’d felt during the thirteen-hour trip wouldn’t amount to anything more than a case of wishful thinking.
My first inkling that I’d likely been a trifle too optimistic in believing an unknown author such as myself might so much as make a ripple in these international waters had been provided by way of the gift tote I’d received upon signing in at the authors' table. In it were a half-dozen free books from some of the convention’s 'featured' authors. All were of a decidedly mainstream appeal, quite at odds with my own reading habits. I knew I wouldn’t read any of them and since my motel was a thirty-minute walk from the Raleigh Convention Center and I didn’t want to be burdened with them until I'd return to my room that night, I stacked the pile of books on a table in the lobby of the adjoining Marriott City Center, free for the taking.
A few seconds later I saw an older gentleman sorting through them and watched, with idle curiosity, to see which of them passed his muster. The one he finally chose featured on its cover a cat sitting on a table beside a martini glass, which was about as far as my interest in the book had extended when I first found it in my tote.
Jack David would shortly thereafter inform me that it was from a sub-genre of mystery novels called “Cat Cozies” (the most popular in this breed being: The Big Kitty, The Whole Cat and Caboodle, Faux Paws & Hiss Of Death). Call me naïve but it had never occurred to me that people wrote books (for adults) in which cats solved crimes and that people (adults!) might actually want to read them. But read them they do, and by the millions as I soon found out. For the rest of the day, it seemed, whenever I spied someone holding a book, it featured a tabby or calico on its cover and the 'Cat Cozy' corner in the bookseller’s room sported a permanent line-up - while, I might add, nary a soul was to be seen at the table selling Cipher.
That night I ended up at an event called 'Bar Noir' and my mounting despondency was somewhat tempered by the promise that 'Noir', another sub-genre, was reserved for those who wrote to discomfort rather than its opposite. The first reader was a fellow named Tom Pitts who, I’d later discover, was a transplanted Canadian living in California. His offering involved a heroin junkie trying to shoot up in the video booth at a porn shop whose efforts were constantly being thwarted by a 'dwarf' banging on his door intent on purchasing his used jizz rag. Now that, I thought joining in with the audience’s boisterous applause, is more like it!
The next reader was a shaven-headed, somewhat elderly author with a handlebar moustache that, to me, suggested he might have been a retired sheriff from down Texas-way. He was introduced as Les Edgerton and, while it turned out he was indeed originally from Texas, I quickly learned that he was about as far removed from a lawman as one could reasonably get.
His piece recounted a true story from his stint as a convicted felon in an Indiana prison. Apparently the farmer who supplied the prison with beans always threw in a few shovelfuls of gravel to increase his profit. This meant that inmates had to be constantly on guard when eating the legume but in his story "Toothache" the protagonist becomes distracted by one of the cooks attacking a fellow inmate with a meat cleaver and thus bites down on a rock amongst his beans, breaking his tooth. Delivered with such dry wit and grisly humour, Les’s reading that night at Bar Noir, to this day, stands as the most compelling recitation I’ve heard in any of the dozens of literary events I’ve attended over the years and, between him and Tom, my mood was on a definite upswing come intermission.
The break found me smoking a cigarette on the bar’s street-side patio. One of the perks of the evening was a sampling of North Carolina whiskey. Given that a half-pint of beer cost almost ten dollars Canadian, I’d been keeping an eye peeled for the waitress in charge of dispensing these complimentary drinks. Having already managed to snag a couple previously, I was downing my third between drags when I heard a rather garrulous voice shouting out, “Who's got a smoke? I’m jonesing for a goddamn cigarette!”
Turning, I saw it was Les. Pulling out my pack, I handed a smoke over, assuring him that my Canadian Classics would be the best cigarettes he'd ever tasted. I’m almost certain he didn’t entirely agree but we still ended up jawing at one of the patio’s tables for a couple of hours joined by Chicago mystery writer - and former Def Jam comic - Danny Gardner who’d go on to found Bronzeville Books a few years later (a publishing venture at which a friend from my high school in Bracebridge would serve as an editor, another of those funny coincidences I tend to thrive on as a writer).
Les proved himself as proficient a story teller as he was a reader and our conversation would give me plenty of fodder for the three minutes I’d been allotted to introduce myself and Cipher at the Emerging Writers Breakfast the following morning. Les was to sit on one of the panels that same day and, naturally, I put his appearance at the top of my 'to-do list'. He was seated between two law enforcement officers-cum-writers and set the tone of the discussion early on when he paused briefly while recounting one tale from his seemingly endless repertoire of stories as an outlaw to remark rather impishly, “I probably shouldn’t be telling this one with so many cops around,” before boldly charging ahead anyway. But it was something he said a few moments later which would tell me beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had found a kindred spirit. Answering a question about whether he had a specific reader in mind while writing, he answered that he didn’t write for a million readers, he wrote to find that one reader who might just get it.
In my twenties I’d read Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, in which Goldmund is enticed into the artist’s life by a statue he encounters in a small country chapel at a particularly dark moment in his life. Ever since, I’d become convinced that art’s true value resided in its potential to instil a longing for a new direction in those ‘lost souls’ who needed it most. I’d been inspired by quite a number of writers over the years in my own efforts to chart a new direction for myself through my fiction but it was rare indeed to actually meet a fellow author in the flesh who, by virtue of his very being, seemed to embody such an all-too-often maligned ideal.
Over the intervening years I’ve come to respect Les's prowess as a writer as much as I do the man himself and there are no emails I treasure more than the ones I’ve received from him during our correspondence. Les generously offered to provide a blurb for Savage Gerry and while he certainly struck at the heart of the matter when he wrote, “This is a novel of the love of men for their sons” - after all I wrote it For Drake (my first son) - it wasn’t until I’d read his book Adrenaline Junkie that I’d fully understand the emotional imperative simmering beneath the surface of these words.
Les leads into his memoir by quoting James Baldwin in the first of two epigraphs: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
Words were insufficient to express my sudden elation upon reading that as I literally leapt out of my chair to share this discovery with my partner Tanja, for James Baldwin’s Another Country plays a pivotal role in In for a Dime and I had also chosen another Baldwin quote as the epigraph for my next book, Mason’s Jar.
The complete quote in which this line appears is: “Now it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.”
I include it here because, to me, it provides an invaluable key to fully appreciating what Les has accomplished with Adrenaline Junkie, as does what author Marjorie Brody writes in her Foreword: “Les understands that backstory matters. It influences the presence. So, he journeyed through the past seeking answers for why he was here . . . Fighting for a moment - regardless of how fleeting - to feel in control of his life.”
It was hard not to pause again when reading this, since the only inspirational quote I have hanging on the wall above my computer is a single page torn from a July, 2021, Harper’s Magazine article. I’ve highlighted the last paragraph in Matthew Karp’s “History As End” to serve as both a constant reminder of what I myself am striving for in my writing and as a welcome reassurance that I am far from alone in what often feels like a solitary, and futile, pursuit of such an ideal.
To quote from Karp's article: “The past may live inside the present but it does not govern our growth. However sordid or sublime, our origins are not our destinies; our daily journey into the future is not fixed by moral arcs or genetic instructions. We must come to see history . . . as what we fight over, fight for, and aspire to in practices of justice. History is not the end, it is only one more battleground where we must meet the vast demands of the ever-living now.”
If Les’s brazenly courageous and brutally honest account of his past is anything, it’s one man’s attempt to create just such a battlefield out of his own personal history . . . and what a history it turned out to be!
From working at his grandmother’s bar/restaurant in the highly segregated - and oftentimes callously violent - city of Freeport, Texas, during his youth, to his military service as a cryptographer stationed on the Caribbean Island of San Sal, to his life as an outlaw and professional thief. Then there was, of course, his stint at Pendleton Reformatory - one of the worst prisons in America at the time - during which he’d learn the skills which would lead him to becoming a renowned hairstylist, only to have his career derailed in a self-destructive streak fuelled by his seemingly insatiable appetite for sex and drugs, and finally his moving on to rediscovering his true calling as an author.
The only corollary within the literary world that I could think of which even comes close to matching his story would be that of Hunter S. Thompson. But whereas Hunter S. allowed himself to become a caricature, forever trapped in a persona of his own devise, Les is driven by what at times seems like an almost pathological desire to keep reinventing himself, sometimes for the better, frequently for the worse.
To be honest, I often had a difficult time reconciling the man he was with the man I’ve come to know. While this dissonance primarily served to bolster the pervasive, and increasingly palpable, tension which veritably bristles off every page, it also instilled in me a certain reluctance while approaching the last few chapters. It was akin to how I feel nearing the end of a particularly intricate mystery novel, knowing that the whole thing could quickly become unravelled by an overly pat or facile resolution that leaves far too little to the reader’s imagination, whereas my favourite reveals always compel the reader to re-evaluate everything that came before, even while pointing towards a far-from-certain future. Adrenaline Junkie, I’m relieved to report, manages this with a similar prowess as Les brings to his crime fictions.
In fact, it was a passage from his 2011 novel Just Like That which was ever in my thoughts while I reflected on Adrenaline Junkie. In it his lead character, Jake, is serving time for much the same reasons Les did and, while conversing with his cellmate about what led him into a life of crime, he reflects that “the scareder I get, the gutsier I become.”
This itself serves as incisive an explanation of what drives the 'adrenaline junkie' as I’ve ever heard and, where in his past lives Les seemingly allowed this same propulsive fear to drive him towards imminent self-destruction, ultimately it’s his embrace of that same verve which elevates his memoir beyond a mere cataloguing of the extreme turns his life took as a result.
That his ultimate reversal was spurred by the love of a woman and the birth of his son might have, in less adroit hands, come across as trite but, here, it serves only to raise the stakes even further. In McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Judge Holden remarks “The stakes is the game” and it’s a lesson Les seems to have taken well to heart. By using his fear to force a reckoning with his own past, and damn the consequences, he’s achieved the rarest of all feats; he’s turned what could have been a simple cautionary tale into an epic saga of a man re-imagining what was once his Achilles heel into his greatest asset and I, for one, cannot think of a more compelling, nor salient, story for our times than that.
Les Edgerton is an American author of 23 books, two of which are on writing fiction, and has taught at several colleges and universities.
His works, including a variety of short stories, screenplays, essays and articles, have been nominated for numerous awards and several of his books have been translated into Japanese, German and Italian.