by Sara Gran

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Dope, by Sara Gran.

If I ask you to think about the 1950s, you — being a person who has been to a movie in their life — may go right to Grease or American Graffiti, maybe Happy Days. We do form most of our vague ideas of what a period was like based on the media, don’t we? The 60s was one big march on Washington/love-in. The Middle Ages was mostly about the Holy Grail and trying to avoid dying of the Black Plague (that one may be fairly accurate). The 80s — even though I was there, all I can think of is Molly Ringwald.  In in the Old West — whenever that was — you were either a cowboy or a saloon girl.

But what about the people that weren’t gunslingers or ingénues? There must be stories to tell from the folks on the fringe, right? What about the guy who missed the bus and never made it to Woodstock? What about the woman who was neither a square nor a greaser?

That’s the story Sara Gran has chosen to tell in Dope. A 1950s we may not immediately recognize, in a New York that hasn’t been cleaned up for the tourists — not by a long shot. This is the story of Josephine Flannigan. She’s not young, or cute, or sweet, but Josephine will tell you the truth. She’s middle aged, and she just got out of jail. Jo’s been off heroine for two years. Maybe that’s why the rich couple from uptown hire her to find their missing daughter, who they suspect is on drugs. Who would know better where to look for the girl? And Jo does know, every cell in her body remembers. She’s trying to put her past behind her, but she’s forced to revisit all her old haunts, and all her old friends. Although ‘friends’ is so completely the wrong word. (That’s all the plot you’ll get out of me, because another word and I’d have said too much.)

In Dope, Gran takes us to flops, tenements, squats, dives, seedy rowhouses, dancehalls and dark corners, turns on the lights and lets us take a good long look. If you were toying with the idea of becoming a heroine addicted prostitute — guess what? Less fun and even less glamorous than you might have imagined, if that’s possible. I thought a little bit about the film Requiem for a Dream, and that even though the period is different, the desire and then spiral into degradation is exactly the same (kids, don’t do drugs and then turn to prostitution!). It’s hard to decide who has the worst lot;  the men, old before their years, nodding their lives away in one filthy room, or the women, particularly the dance hall girls Jo talks to, whose lives have narrowed down to their next customer and their next fix. (Okay, actually? Not that hard to decide.) There are no easily identified good guys in this book. Jo herself has been a thief her whole life, proudly noting “only two theft charges in a lifetime of stealing.” Her struggle to stay clean and find the missing girl is not an epic struggle for the fate of humanity, unless you think all humanity has worth and deserves a measure of dignity.

I’ve avoided the use of the term noir up to now, because every book or movie with a shady character or a double cross claims it, but Dope — seemingly written in smudged, shifting shades of grey — is the real thing.

I feel fortunate to be able to tell you about writers like Sara Gran, because it’s so hard to get noticed in a sea of new books. She deserves your attention. Sara is also the author of Come Closer, one of my favorite books of the last year. She’s also a pretty cool person.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Dope by Sara Gran.

Set in the seedy underbelly of the cold, heartless city, we meet Josephine Flannigan, a down on her luck good-time gal just out of the joint. Jo’s the narrator, and she tells us she’s off the junk, been clean for two years, and now a rich couple from uptown wants her to find their daughter, a college girl gone bad. Real bad. Luckily for you, Sara Gran writes noir much better than I do, and this spare, hard-edged novel reads like the chick flick movie script Raymond Chandler never wrote. All the characters in Dope are shady and looking to make a deal, and 1950s Manhattan shines like a dirty diamond. This is a book about junkies and prostitutes and the people who use them, so don’t look for a happy ending, just a taut, elegantly written noir thriller. Dope by Sara Gran. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Dope by Sara Gran, who also wrote the very scary Come Closer.

This time it’s not supernatural horror, but the awful things we do to ourselves. Set in 1950s Brooklyn, this is a pitch perfect noir mystery. Our narrator is a tough gal named Josephine, just out of jail and free of heroine for two years. She thinks she’s struck pay dirt when a wealthy couple hires her to find their missing daughter, who they suspect has started using heroin. Who better to find a junkie than an ex-junkie? Dope takes Josephine back to the bad old days, to her old companions, dance halls, street corners and back rooms, and it’s a very bad trip. Gran is interested in the idea of control — in this book, many of the characters have signed everything over to heroin and the women are mostly prostitutes. You can’t help but admire Jo for getting as far from that life as she does. Dope by Sara Gran. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Dope by Sara Gran.

This’ll be kind of tough to review because I can’t really talk about the plot or some of the characters without giving everything away, and the double crosses and shady deals in this mystery — set in 1950s Brooklyn — are worth taking in at their own pace. I can tell you how much I admired narrator Josephine Flannigan, middle aged, no prospects, just out of jail and off heroin. She’s struggling to stay clean and leave her past behind, but in noir the past is almost a character in its own right. Jo thinks she might have a shot at getting ahead when wealthy couple hires Jo to find their junkie daughter, but to find the girl Jo has to head back to the very street corners and back rooms she left behind. Dope is a spare novel without a wasted word, and Sara Gran has written another memorable novel. Dope by Sara Gran. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.

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