Eric Ashworth remembers nothing when he wakes up in a jail hospital surrounded by machines beeping like aliens, a chemical drip and a determinedly friendly detective. He recalls sensations, images, fireflies and a name – Desiree - but without any context.
Carefully bandaged and somewhat recovered, Eric finds himself ensconced in the Hotel Firebird, Room 621, but “jail moves with me, an invisible box surrounding my every step with every tick of the clock.” His paranoia accelerated, critical details are temporarily buried in a damaged mind. Convinced he is being monitored, “umbrella men” and random insects following his every move, Eric fails to resist the urges of a demanding brain for more drugs, more escape.
A consummate chemist, Eric is a genius at refining the essence of the drug du jour in mass quantities, conversant with all aspects of the trade - manufacturing, R and D, distribution, sales and marketing. “The best batch wouldn’t go anywhere in the world without a good name”; hence, Straight Eights, Road Dogs, Green Berets, Mad Hatters and White Rabbits, an endless stream of top-quality uppers and mood changers eagerly consumed by a voracious public. Eric’s latest creation, Derma, or Skin, brings the user close to God, and is currently in raucous demand.
And there’s the rub: the only access to the past and his part in this drama is by consuming Derma, each experience revealing more of what Eric needs to survive his present circumstances. So Eric goes to the source, a pornographic dancer behind a curtain, who offers the capsules for a price, along with distorted memories of Desiree.
In a spiraling web of confusion, trapped in the cacophony of his own thoughts, Eric fuels the rush of memory with ever higher doses of Derma, culminating in a harsh awakening as fact separates from fiction. Faced with the inevitable results of his chemical euphoria, Eric’s lucidity waxes and wanes until both love and tragedy are revealed in equal measure, the breadth of his betrayal unbearable.
The author’s knowledge of pharmacology is impressive, drugs as important in this story as in his first excellent novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook. But Eric lacks the depth and passion of Clevenger’s first protagonist, lost in a haze of drug-induced stupor that moves between fantasy and reality, characters real and imagined but without much substance. Accurately detailed and written with the passion of a lit match poised to light a rising layer of ether, this world of phantoms carries its own harsh fate.