Review: Fiend, by Peter Stenson

9780770436315>>Published: July 2013

I’m holding on to Typewriter’s arm and we’re running down the stairs. We’re outside and the sun is about to set behind the small river valley of St. Paul and we’re not alone anymore—the streets have started to fill with what looks like the usual haggard motherfuckers of tame Midwestern ghettos—and we get in Typewriter’s Civic and they are coming toward us, these people, these walking dead motherfuckers, all of them probably having reanimated and broken down their doors, and we’re driving away from them all.

I tell Typewriter to give me what he’s holding.

He starts with some shit about not knowing what I’m talking about. I pound the dash. I say, Give me your shit.

He reaches into his pocket.

It’s a decent-sized thirty rock.

I pull the pipe from my pocket. I put the whole piece in the bowl. My hands shake. They’re stained black from Svetlana’s blood or maybe that’s mine and the lighter won’t catch. I just want a hit, that’s all I want, like everything—survival and death and being one of the few still alive—doesn’t matter, not really, the stem shaking in my mouth, my breath held. Finally the flame stays. I drag. It’s the smell of burning plastic and chemicals, of being sixteen and wanting to be rad like the kids I skated with, of wanting to fit in behind the dumpster at Burger King, of fear, of not knowing what I was smoking, of my lungs rebelling against poison, and then the release, clear smoke expelled with a sigh like pissing in a pool.

My head becomes lighter, my shoulders released from the vise grip of being me sober.

It’s okay then, everything.

***

Peter Stenson’s Fiend accomplished something I thought near impossible: it made me give a shit about a zombie story. To be clear, I’ve been tired of the overwhelming and overdone zombie “genre” since before it was even close to the cultural phenomenon it is at this very moment. As a supernatural creature, the shambling undead has always bored me—even the best stories feature different takes on fighting off a horde of melancholic drunks (or speed freaks, as was the case with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake) who just wanna get their bite on. The more interesting takes—the ones with something to say—are the ones that push the zombies to the background, using an apocalyptic setting to tell a narrative of human survival, and how the presence of one demon will inevitably bring out the demon in all of us. In many of those cases, any sort of apocalyptic setting will do—zombies are just the thing to push people from one place to another with as many shotguns as they can carry. Thankfully, and unexpectedly, Fiend manages to distance itself from these expectations just enough to feel fresh.

Beginning in medias res, Fiend follows Minnesota junkies Chase Daniels and his best friend John (Typewriter) as they come out the ass-end of a multi-day meth marathon and into the middle of a burgeoning zombie outbreak. One dead dog and a little girl smashed to death with a typewriter later and the two are on a dead sprint to get away from the sudden chaos that surrounds them, and to discover what the hell has happened to their world—and perhaps more importantly, why it didn’t happen to them. Along the way they’ll pull a Shaun of the Dead and rescue Chase’s is-she-or-isn’t-she girlfriend KK, hook up with The Albino—the greatest meth cook in Minnesota—and take shelter in, of all things, a prison.

Fiend takes place over a single week, leaving little room to breathe. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the novel’s opening chapter, which clips along at a relentless, horrifying pace that feels a little like Trainspotting beneath the filter of an extended apocalypse hallucination. The sense of chaos is genuine, and about as easily digestible as a quarter-sized pill caught in one’s throat; by the end of just that first day, it’s remarkable—believably so—that Chase and Typewriter are still alive (when by all rights of god and Darwinism they should have been among the first to die in any true crisis scenario). Propulsive is overused to describe writing like this, but it fits.

It’s the small touches that give Fiend its more unnerving edge: the telltale “giggle” of nearby zombies, the flashbacks to the psych ward where Chase and KK first met and fell in love and their reasons for being there, the gradual dissolution of trust among the survivors. The membrane stretching across all this, however, is the unlikely but interesting conceit that it’s meth, of all things, that keeps them safe from whatever it is that’s turning people into zombies in the first place. The survivors turn to rationing meth like most would food, but with the added “oh shit” factor of addiction increasing demand of a substance already in extremely limited supply, which leads to reckless missions like operation “Get Sudafed” while they contemplate their future meth-utopia, where daily use is encouraged—nay, essential for survival.

The metaphor at the heart of Fiend is painted in broad strokes: it’s about addicts tearing down the lives around them—the lives of family members, friends, and society at large. It’s about pushing away from those suffering most due to their son/daughter/loved one’s self-destructive need. Nevertheless, the metaphor works because Stenson is willing to invert the world—to show how they’ve learned to survive when the world around them has gone to shit, because literally everyone still human, including a random trucker met early in the narrative, is a user in some way, shape, or form. It’s the users who know what’s best—everyone else had it wrong.

Stenson writes from a place of authority. A recovering addict himself, he’s been sober for ten years. Fiend feels in many ways like an attempt to convey, through an established and currently easy to chew genre, what it’s like to be in the thick of using, to literally see the world around you as something to be fought against, as something that doesn’t want you to live as you want to live, free from oppressive legal and loving hands that might try to take away what it is that makes the pain go away.

The novel is at its most disarming near the end, when following the most unattractive sex scene in the history of unattractive sex scenes (deliberately so, I imagine), Chase comes to the realization that this is it for society—that they’re the last of the last, smatterings of junkies here and there that cannot create life but can merely prolong death:

Then I think about having to shoot my newborn up with drugs and this seems like the saddest fucking thought ever. Not so much abusing my baby. But that we’re done as a species. There’s no way to reproduce. No way to ensure our offspring make it out of the womb and no way to cultivate their minds and bodies. Even if there is some sort of cure, we’ll still have to shoot crystal every day. A baby couldn’t take that. So we’re it. Pockets of motherfucking junkies around the state. Around the country. Probably other countries too. All of us hunkered down wondering how much longer until the next thing goes wrong. Until we’re out of ephedrine to break down, or ammonia, or HCl. Until the power grid fails. Until we can’t stand our lives and slit our fucking wrists. We’re it.

No two ways around it: Fiend is a depressing fucking book, but an exciting, interesting, and surprisingly well crafted character piece on top of all that. Stenson’s mid-apocalyptic exercise does enough to turn the genre’s clichés on their head so as to remain captivating until its terrific, soul destroying ending, which slips the sober reality of the situation like a knife between Chase’s ribs, twisting the metaphor to its logical, necessary end.

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