Arts & Entertainment: ‘Tacoma Pill Junkies’ high on local grit

Joshua Swainston, a local tugboat sailor turned author, has self published “The Tacoma Pill Junkies” in an effort to bring the grit of the 253 to the pages of his writing. He mostly succeeds.

The 245-page book serves as a diary of sorts for a gaggle of Gen Xers as they waddle through life as part-time pill pushers and full-time addicts at a time when a serial killer is offing the less-than-pillar members of the community. The story plays out like a gritty pulp novel from the 1950s, with a lot of splash and scene setting, but not a lot of story outside the seemingly stream-of-consciousness references to local sites.

Tied into the mess is 23-year-old Courtney Taylor, a clothing store manager at Tacoma Mall. She is mugged in the parking lot as she reports to work only to get her wallet back from a custodian who found the loot on his bus.

This is a typical scene from the book: Ben and Mike, the central pill poppers, are waiting for a score at Magoo’s Annex. Mike is bald and pierced, which apparently makes him look older than his 19 years, so he never gets carded ordering drinks. Suspend disbelief on that for a minute and soak in the story.

“Ben nodded a few times in approval, then turned his attention back to his beer. Not more than 12 seconds later he looked back at his cell phone. The brief relief of Mike’s anecdote wore off. “Maybe I should call?” But Ben refrained. The silence sandwiched the two like a vise. The moment, with awkward unsolicited tension, habitually occurred between addicts while on the down side of the high. Another round of beer was ordered and paid for. Then, as if she materialized, a slender woman in olive green slacks and a black hoodie stood placing an order with the bartender. She looked over at Ben and gave a gesture of recognition with a twitch of her head and neck.”

Pages and pages of thusly viscous text play out to create the standard “word picture” of the action at hand, and the paragraphs get downright sluggish with machine-gunned sentence after sentence of styled knockoff prose made famous by Hunter S. Thompson, Mickey Spillane and James Ellroy.

But Swainston is not Dr. Thompson, so the paragraphs just bog down and often get in the way of the story as they try to set the scene while saying little. Swainston notes that he writes Tacoma-centric fiction and nonfiction for Wrist and other outlets and lists his inspirations as Spalding Gray, Kurt Vonnegut, Wes Anderson and Steve Martin. He is not them, but not a bad writer all in all.

Here the pill poppers are selling a stash to some yuppie punks while trying to hold in their disdain for all things materialistic.

“Popped Collar approached the car. In a fake cool, he tried to cover up the fact that he had called Ben over 50 times in the last four hours. Popped Collar positioned himself so he looked into the unopened window. He failed miserably at appearing not to care. “Abercrombie” appeared to be far less relaxed as he positioned himself against the Buick’s rear passenger door and drummed his fingertips against the vehicle’s roof. Ben rolled the window down with an automatic switch from the driver’s side. Popped Collar leaned forward to make eye contact with the inhabitants of the car.”

Ben offers two pills, but he had expected more.

The story drags on with some twists and false leads and outright non-sequitur asides, but all is crafted by a writer who seemingly loves words and crafts a memorable read.

“The Tacoma Pill Junkies” is available through http://www.Tacomapilljunkies.com and online booksellers.

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