The Cocaine Chronicles by Gary Phillips and Jervey Tervalon

The drug did me, and not me the drug.
— Jervey Tervalon

The Cocaine Chronicles is a brand new collection of 17 remarkable short stories from an impressive gathering of seasoned writers. Akashic Books describes the collection as an “ambitious anthology of jaw-grinding criminal behavior.” The official genre is crime-fiction, but the tales contained within obliterate the boundaries of categorization. The journey through the book’s four sections is a bone-rattling rollercoaster ride, with every shocking outcome and every time-worn tale of life gone awry proving yet again that when the subject is coke, blow, ‘caine, whatever the chosen endearment or curse of nomenclature may be, the story never really ends.

The editors, Gary Phillips and Jervey Tervalon, are no newcomers to edgy fiction. Phillips writes screenplays, comic books, and crime fiction novels including Bangers (2003). Tervalon is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, and writer-in-residence at Pitzer College. Both editors contribute stories in the final section of The Cocaine Chronicles, and their combined experience and literary talent make this collection an incredible and seamless read.

The Cocaine Chronicles begins with a dedication page heavy with implication. It reads, “For all our brothers and sisters who now only get high on life.” This bold statement is an appropriate introduction to a collection of works whose intent is often elusive. In the process of absorbing each story, any number of emotions, ideologies, memories, or discoveries may pass through the mind of the reader. The tone is neither cautionary nor flamboyant, but open to infinite interpretations.

This book reads like a walk down the hall of a dark urban apartment building. Behind each new door of a story, there are vignettes, slices of life rife with drama and intrigue. So capable and inventive are the contributors, even lackluster events take on an air of suspense and pregnant possibility. The stories invite onlookers into the midst of chaos, and some look back with gravity.

The tone is intimate and stripped-down, as if dealing with such a leveling subject allows niceties to be cast aside in favor of familiarity and brutal honesty. This tone is mirrored in both the literary themes and in the physical setup of the book. The editors and writers alike interpret fiction and personal experience through the lens of societal zeitgeists, creating a compelling pulse that runs through each plot. Before each story, there is an author profile page featuring a photo and background information. This small detail creates a further level of connection between authors and readers, rendering the stories that much more effective. The line between fiction and reality fades to a hazy shadow, making immersion in these gripping stories even more satisfying.

The book is divided into four sections, each presenting a running theme. “Touched By Death” starts the book off with a collection of powerful stories, each bringing the reader a little further into a wholly unique existence based upon the wildly varying role of cocaine in the characters’ lives. The well-placed initial selections act as a warm-up for readers, but a clear message emerges as well. If The Cocaine Chronicles holds the power to shock, it does so right out of the gate. All sorts of strange bedfellows emerge from the stories, but similar to the effect of the drug itself, delving deeper brings on a sense of normalcy and a twitching curiosity for more.

“Fiending,” the second set of stories, is filled with standout tales that communicate with dead-on precision experiences of daily life with cocaine. Wit and description personify the effect of drugs in the lives the characters, whose personalities so often take the form of world-weary cynics simply streaming from one fix to another.

In “Corruption,” section three, readers may volley between amusement, disgust, incredulousness, and of course, a kind of reckless satisfaction that comes from the vicarious experiences of these fierce stories. Bizarre parallels arise throughout the entirety of the book, but make the strongest statement in this section. The stories simultaneously impress upon readers the tragic consequences of lives consumed with substances and the vigorous feeling of life lived in a gloriously altered state. The stories in “Corruption” send readers on a journey of constant flux, where facts are negotiable and consequences are in the eye of the beholder.

The final section, “Gangsters and Monsters,” ends the book with tales that are almost touching, evoking familial themes glazed by coarse realities. The editors contribute stories to this section, and the book closes as strongly as it began. Filled with disturbing, riveting storylines, The Cocaine Chronicles is an exercise in mind-altering literature. The contributors’ gifts of communication and impeccable style come together to create a literary experience quite unlike any other, and the challenge of a benchmark not easily eclipsed has been set for crime fiction writers yet to come.