31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 26: “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” by Will Self

May 26, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys

Tough_Tough_Toys_for_Tough_Tough_BoysWill Self’s comic fantasia updates Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age story, replacing gilded age diamond miners with late 20th-century inner-city drug dealers. Self adapts Fitzgerald’s themes of class and racial disparity, locating his story in London immediately following the first Gulf War.

The story focuses on two Jamaican immigrants – Bantu, known as Danny, and Tembe. Danny is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, who returns to his family’s rundown London house with no prospects, and decides to fill his time by fixing up his family homestead. Drilling through the cellar wall, Danny makes a surprising discovery:

He squatted and brought a gloveful of the matter up to his face. It was yellowy-white, with a consistency somewhere between wax and chalk. Danny took off his glove and scrunged some of it between his nails. It flaked and crumbled. He dabbed a little bit on his bottom lip and tasted it. It tasted chemical. He looked wonderingly at the four-foot-square patch that he had exposed. The swinging bulb sent streaks of odd luminescence glissading across its uneven surface. It was crack cocaine. Danny had struck crack.

The idea of a house built on a foundation of crack cocaine is as patently absurd as the notion of a mountain that is a solid diamond, but Self’s technique, for all its satirical exaggeration, cleaves closer to a naturalistic presentation than does Fitzgerald’s. The verisimilitude in the dialogue (“You’re a fucking dead-head, Tembe, an’ ain’t that the fucking troof”) and the specificity of the setting help accentuate the comic effect of Self’s narrative, which starts out as a dream-like fantasia, but turns into an excoriating examination of the nature of addiction.

As with most of Self’s writing, the draw here is the language. Self is a bravura stylist, who never employs a plain turn of phrase when an ornate or rococo one will do. Often, this results in frustration; in this case, it works, perhaps as a result of the story’s relative brevity.

Self’s careful attention to language is in evidence right from the opening sequence, a reverie narrated from the perspective of Tembe, a low-level drug dealer in the employ of his older brother. Tembe imagines himself chipping away at the walls of the Ritz hotel in London, and finding that they are literally made of crack. Self employs purposeful alliteration (“hooting vans, honking buses”; “yellow finger flanges”; “Pyrex piping”) and deliberate repetition to set the scene and help create the mood for what is to come. Twice in the opening paragraph, the dream-hotel is personified with animal characteristics: in the first instance, a colonnade pierces the edifice’s “hard hide,” and in the second, the windows are likened to “luxuriant eye[s].” Anthropomorphizing the inanimate building has the effect of giving it agency, which anticipates the ramifications the crack-bedrock will have on Tembe later in the story.

This opening scene is recapitulated later, in a more naturalistic context, when Danny, having returned home from overseas, discovers the peculiar nature of his home’s foundation. The contrast between the realism of the presentation and the absurdity of the situation results in a reading experience that is at once familiar and uncomfortable; the more outlandish elements become subsumed in the carefully seeded ground, such that a reader is willing to accept them almost without question or hesitation.

The ironic distance between the realistic backdrop and the fantastic foreground also provides the mechanism for the story’s humour, which is plentiful. And Self underscores the racism of British society in his portrayal of a soldier who returns home without prospects, and discovers that the readiest means of advancement is by dealing drugs that are literally right under his feet.

“The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” recalls Fitzgerald’s theme of unconstrained gluttony, but places it in the context of a chemical addiction. The Iranian customer to whom Tembe makes repeated deliveries serves as Self’s version of the Washingtons: an unreconstructed hedonist, he is first described as “playing with his wing-wang,” and later is seen crawling around on his carpet, his eyes hunting for phantom rocks like “crack-seeking radar.”

Tembe recognizes the Iranian’s behaviour as that of a true addict:

It began when you reached that point – some time after the tenth pipe – where your brain gets sort of fused with crack. Where your brain is crack. Then you start to see the stuff everywhere. Every crumb of bread on the carpet or grain of sugar on the kitchen lino looks like a fragment of ecstatic potential. You pick one up after the other, checking them with a touch of wavering flame, never quite believing that it isn’t crack until the smell of toast assaults your nose.

Despite recognizing the symptoms of addiction, Tembe capitulates to temptation and indulges in some of his brother’s supply, in the process coming to an epiphany about the nature of the product: “This is the hit, Tembe realised, concretely, irrefutably, for the first time. The whole hit of rock is to want more rock. The buzz of rock is itself the wanting of more rock.

Like the Washingtons in Fitzgerald’s story, Tembe is in thrall to an avarice that is ultimately self-defeating: the more he indulges, the more potent and destructive his hunger becomes. Only Danny remains immune to the lure of the drug, and only because he has internalized the first crack commandment, the one about not getting high on one’s own supply. The final scene in the story finds him in his basement, “chipping, chipping, chipping away. And he never ever touched the product.”

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