Book Review: The Last Opium Den
Nick Tosches is butch. In "The Sex Revolts," a book about gender and music, Joy Press and Simon Reynolds called him the "most unabashedly phallocratic of rock critics." He got even more macho as he proceeded into fiction, investigative journalism and biography, turning his attention away from the sybarites of the music world and toward realms where unadulterated testosterone reign even more supreme -- his prime subjects became organized crime and boxing. Over the years, his voice ripened from adolescent gonzo mania into the literary equivalent of the aging gangsters he half-celebrated in the heroin-trafficking thriller "Trinities," becoming smoke-cured, elegant and more brutal than ever.
Today, his cultivated underworld aura makes him a bit of an anachronism, a man of Godfather values in the time of the Sopranos. Thus it's not surprising that in "The Last Opium Den," he nourishes visions of "dark, brocade-curtained, velvet-cushioned places of luxurious decadence, filled with the mingled smoke and scents of burning joss sticks and the celestial, forbidden, fabulous stuff itself. Wordless, kowtowing servants. Timelessness. Sanctuary. Lovely loosened limbs draped from the high-slit cheongsams of recumbent exotic concubines of sweet intoxication." As Graham Greene wrote, "Seediness has a very deep appeal ... It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost."
"The Last Opium Den," a 74-page slip of a book, is a slightly expanded version of an article that Tosches published in Vanity Fair last year. It's a fantasy of the sphere he should have lived in, the one he imagined in "Trinities." Early in his story, he draws the contrast between his idealized exotic haven and trendy Manhattan's "pseudo-sophisticated rubes ... who turned New York into a PG-rated mall and who oh so loved it thus." Disgusted with the world around him, he sets out to find the one that he believes must exist -- the world of opium dens and all the gorgeous dissipation they conjure.
It's a compelling quest, but there's a huge flaw in Tosches' setup. Were he simply searching for a remnant of the darkly indolent Shanghai splendor of old opium dens, for an echo of crepuscular romance in a garish world, "The Last Opium Den" would be authoritative. As it is, Tosches' coolly glowing prose makes for an invigorating trip, but the man is an unreliable guide. "The Last Opium Den" is premised not just on the idea that glamorous, plush opium dens are impossible to find. It insists that opium dens of all sorts are extinct, even in Asia. And that, I can tell you from experience, simply isn't so.
Tosches presents himself as an insider, one privy to all kinds of secret information. He is blessed with the assistance of various Virgils, who prompt offhand lines like, "I turn to yet another native acquaintance ... with whom I am able to penetrate the inner circles of the triads of the Sham Shui Po district, an area so dark that its reputation as a black market serves as a veneer of relative respectability." Yet no one can help him. "Sinners and saints, lawmen and criminals, drug addicts and scholars, lunatics and seekers. They all told me the same: there ain't no such thing no more; them days are gone." Failing to find what he's looking for in Bangkok, he writes ruefully, "More than two hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Thailand, not a single opium den."
That statement is untrue. I know because, like Tosches, I was intoxicated by opium dreams, and I longed to smoke the stuff in a den, with my head on a pillow and an old man tending the pipe. Yet unlike Tosches, I was able to find an opium den in Thailand after casually asking around for a couple of days. I'd been staying in the northern town of Pai, a hippie hangout near the Burmese border. The den was in a Lahu minority village about a half-hour away by motorbike. It catered mostly to Western backpackers and burnouts -- a clientele hardly less ersatz than the New York yuppies Tosches scorns. There was no glamour or silk brocade -- livestock were corralled beneath the raised floor, the oil lamps flickered out of sawed-off Coke cans. But it was an opium den all the same, perfumed with the Elysian smoke.
Tosches finds similar places in Cambodia and Indonesia, but the conceit that he's stumbled upon some secret treasure grates. The fact is, one needn't be all that intrepid to visit these dives. All over Northern Thailand, local businessmen offer "tribal treks" into the hills and often promise their clients a night of opium smoking with local villagers. Tosches refers to these tours and then dismisses them: "Almost everybody I've met who has visited Northern Thailand has encountered a tribal villager eager to administer a pipe or two of opium for cash. Invariably, those who have smoked it have gotten sick and little else from it." Fair enough -- perhaps I was just lucky. But what of Laos, where drug tourism is so popular that the government plasters border crossings with posters discouraging it, posters that show Laotians being strangled by poppies? In Laotian towns like Vang Vieng, you can buy opium at practically every corner cigarette stand. You don't need shrewd contacts, just a dollar or two.
Tosches is a sharp reporter, so what accounts for his myopia? Part of it, perhaps, is that the gauche dreadlocked and tie-dyed Europeans who constitute much of Southeast Asia's expat drug culture are well outside Tosches' milieu -- indeed, they're symptomatic of the vulgarity he's fleeing. Beyond that, though, there's a tendency among many tough-guy travel writers and novelists to play up the obstacles they've faced, to render foreign countries as inscrutable, entropic battlegrounds in which to test their manliness.
After reading William Vollmann's "Butterfly Stories," Amit Gilboa's "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh" or parts of Tosches' story, you might suppose that Cambodia is nothing but a suppurating brothel stalked by sociopaths. Yet while there's no denying the immense sordidness of Phnom Penh, when I traveled in Cambodia I was shocked by the gentle ebullience of the people, so much did it differ from the sinister picture I'd gotten from books. I'd been prepared for the country's depravity, but not for its sweetness.
Somehow, it's the swaggering, hard-boiled types who always end up surrounded by subterranean evils. In "Sunrises With Seamonsters," eminent travel writer Paul Theroux writes of Graham Greene's cousin Barbara, Greene's companion in the Liberian trip he documented in "Journey Without Maps." Barbara also produced a book about the journey, "Land Benighted," whose sanguine cheer is an enormous contrast to the hellishness of Graham's story. Theroux writes, "After Graham's almost Conradian push through the African darkness, how deflating it must have seemed when his companion in this trek revealed herself as a pretty young thing, not really a hiker ('I love my creature comforts'), who agreed to walk across Liberia ('wherever it was') because she was a bit tipsy on champagne." The contrast Theroux draws suggests that what we see when we travel has a lot to do with the eyes we look through.
The menacing, knowing undercurrents in Tosches' book, coupled with the exaggerations of his claims about opium's disappearance, lead me to suspect that beneath his tumescent posing lurks the flitting heart of a drama queen. He's like Greene in Liberia, stuck in an impenetrable darkness born partly of his own subjectivity.
Yet if Tosches isn't a wholly reliable narrator, he's a wonderful writer. At times, he's so good that it hardly matters whether his quarry is as elusive as he claims. In many of the best travel stories, the searches that structure them quickly become secondary. You don't keep reading Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard" just to see whether he finally glimpses the beast, or finish Alexander Frater's "Chasing the Monsoon" because you're interested in weather patterns. The quest is just an excuse for the meanderings it engenders.
It's Tosches' meanderings that make his slim book worthwhile. "The Last Opium Den" is more than just an account of a man looking for a smoke-filled room. It's also a meditation on the meaning of pleasure and an argument for dangerous romance over safe banality. His defense of opium rings especially true: "Can an addiction to paradise, artificial as it may be, be considered more ignoble than an addiction to television, movies, or the other lower artificialities of a world so vacant as to be aware of and conversant in the pseudoscience of serotonin but not of the wisdom of Thomas, a world so vacant as to be enamored of the false connoisseurship of rancid grape juice but not the true connoisseurship of something such as opium, let alone of life?" When he writes like this, his search becomes a requiem for the lost raptures of a gentrified world. What has gone missing isn't opium. It's mystery and bliss. The pursuit of both is one worth joining.