Good times, bad times

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Junk By Melvin Burgess Andersen #163;12.99

Taking It By Michael Cadnum Viking #163;10.99

Runner By Elizabeth Hawkins Orchard #163;9.99

Crude anti-drugs messages have little impact, since most adolescents experiment with drugs despite all the warnings - and maybe because of them. Trainspotting became a cult film because it journeyed through the alternative, twilit world young people like to inhabit, portraying without judgment the glory, the camaraderie, the sadness, the laughs, the degradation and terror of heroin addiction. This kaleidoscope of feeling and non-feeling, highs and lows, takes on an exotic quality against the grim greyness of urban poverty.

Junk is less hard-core than Trainspotting and clearly anti-heroin, but it is a similarly rare creature - a well-informed drugs story. Set in Bristol in the post-punk early Eighties, it charts the path of Tar, Gemma, Rob and Lily into junk dependency.

Brilliantly and sensitively written, it encompasses the raw, savage and ecstatic world of the adolescent mind, taking the reader through first-person accounts of an "adventure" that leads to addiction. Tar's parents are alcoholics, his father is violent, his mother abuses him psychologically, he has to get away. Gemma is his good-time girlfriend who leaves home at 14 and follows him into a squat to give her over-protective parents a fright.

While they are under the protection of Richard and Vonny - older, idealistic squatters whose vice is nothing stronger than cannabis - they rub along without major mishap. It is only when Gemma, looking for more kicks, mixes with Rob and Lily, both heroin addicts, that the decline into crime, drugs and prostitution begins.

Lily, who has been in care for most of her life, likes to think of herself as a free spirit, but when her baby comes along she develops the possessiveness of a drowning woman. This doesn't stop her jacking up between breastfeeds. Heroin nicely numbs the pain of Tar's life, but it is only when Gemma also becomes pregnant that the reality of their lives hits her and she reaches out for help.

Though he has never touched heroin, Burgess is writing from personal experience and close observation of friends and family during this period. All the major events, he says, "happened, are happening and will continue to's all true, every word. "

As in many of Burgess's books, the central players are society's outcasts.But unlike many lesser novels of this ilk, social commentary is rendered fascinating by clever characterisation and page-turning drama. There is nothing worthy or patronising about Junk . Burgess gets right under the skin of his characters and some scenes are truly appalling. Teenagers might be slightly nervous about showing it to their parents - which will, undoubtedly, guarantee its success. A superbly crafted and important book.

Taking It charts addiction of a different kind in very different circumstances. Anna is a bright, rich Californian girl with successful but distant parents. Her mother, who heads a TV channel, has remarried. Her handsome lawyer father is preoccupied with court and girlfriends.

Anna is addicted to shoplifting and, though this is regarded as classic attention-seeking, nobody appreciates the extent to which she needs help and understanding. The dislocation in Anna's mind mirrors the dislocation Cadnum evokes so chillingly of American society. We are left without resolution, only a terrible sense of foreboding.

Cadnum writes with pace, building and holding the tension with his laconic style, a novelist of significant talent. A book for the "must read" pile.

Runner tells the story of Nat, a prime candidate for a pupil referral unit, a thoroughly unpleasant bully of a struggling lone mother. His character is transformed by adventure when he finds himself thrust into the middle of a kidnap drama for the possession of findings of crucial medical research. Messed-up Nineties kid meets Enid Blyton. The mix doesn't quite work.

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