It’s 1992. It’s roughly the peak of the Great American Crime Wave (1960-2000). Crack cocaine, which merely jacked up the juvenile end of the already sky-high violent-crime rate, has been on the streets for about ten years. Bill Clinton is about to become the latest president to inherit Nixon’s War on Drugs. Mandatory minimums are filling prisons. American cities are nearly as unlivable as they were in the Al Capone era, when ethanol was the cheap-to-make illegal drug. Gas-station and corner-store cashiers hide in polycarbonate bunkers. Apartment doors have three or four locks on them, sometimes a bar or a jammer. Everyone knows either a mugger or a mugger joke. Suburban moms pack pepper spray or even handguns, just like subway vigilantes. The District's murder rate is almost four times today's (counting the 2018 uptick). 14th St NW, where one day Sotheby’s and West Elm and Trader Joe’s and craft cocktails will live along with a zillion hipsters, is a strip where suburbanites drive in to buy drugs and whores…and get busted by undercover officers.
This is the setting of feature journalist Mike Sager’s first novel, Deviant Behavior (2008).
The book’s central figure, or its most central figure, is an ambitious young journalist, Jonathan Seede. Seede idolizes the seedy William Burroughs and Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, but he also more or less wants to be the Hemingway of the Kansas City Star, Orwell (Down and Out and Wigan Pier—that Orwell), and Hunter Thompson rolled into one gonzo live-the-story chronicler of life at the margins.
In and around Seede's starter row house on 14th, Sager assembles, and Seede mingles with, an ensemble of neighbors and visitors: a gay house flipper, a gentle-giant beat cop, a pimp, a fugitive prostitute, a guru called The Pope of Pot, a decaying funk star, and more. As the book opens, Seede's wife has just run off, taking their toddler with her and leaving behind only a cryptic note. He's in a bad place.
After years of collecting material on the War on Drugs—and nearly everyone in the book is on drugs, soft or hard—Seede’s got an idea for a book. But he’s drudging away at the Washington Tribune (in real life the Washington Post, where Sager worked in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) and supporting his wife and baby, who, as Seede tells it, has turned the wife into a scolding hausfrau.
Those last two, especially, have begun to get in the way of his Young Man’s Literary Ambition, of which this novel is, first and foremost, a funny and honest attempt at a portrait. (It’s in the same line as Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Balzac’s Illusions perdues.) Like Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, Seede believes that to become a real writer he must touch the bottom. His head full of THC and the Pope of Pot’s half-baked maxims, he becomes convinced that interviewing junkies isn’t enough to get to the bottom of what's rotten in America. He starts using heroin and crack. (Echoes of Ruben Castaneda, the crack-smoking journalist who, in 1989, was hired by the Washington Post to write about the drug war.)
By then, improbably, though, Seede and the rest of the cast have got mixed up with a parallel story involving a reclusive Georgetown billionaire who’s collecting possibly magical crystal skulls—like the one in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (also 2008).
Although it feels in places as if an Indiana Jones has somehow got spliced into a drug-trade documentary, the book’s structure is clean: fifty-odd short chapters, each dealing with one character or set of characters; several chapters are excerpts from the diary of the billionaire’s adventurer grandfather, which the billionaire’s scanning for clues. Three or four sets of people and threads are interwoven until, near the end, they begin to merge.
Things never go flat, but Sager struggles to find a tone, especially in the uneven final act in which an increasingly messed-up Seede falls between the cracks (he bounces back in an Aspidistra-style upbeat epilogue); the comedy veers from hijinks to farce to black comedy to schmaltz. The implicit parallels between the drugs and the magic skulls feel strained. Indeed, the whole adventure fantasy feels tacked on (and all the impish billionaire needs is a white cat). The book’s at its best in its straightforward and efficient descriptions of street scene, of reporting, of whoring, of shoes and clothes (including a memorable and funny sketch of what a beat policeman wears), of Ghetto English real and fake, of the interiors of cars and houses and jails, and of the mechanics of the use and experience of heroin and crack.
By the time this snapshot of 1992 was published, violent-crime rates in the US had been collapsing for nearly a decade and a half, and builders and investors keen to cash in on the New Urbanistic revival of American urban life were already changing 14th St and H Street NE and Shaw and Navy Yard and other parts of town beyond recognition. Across most of the city, the kind of armed robbery the hapless Seede runs into near the close of the story had already become much rarer than it used to be, just like assault and murder.
Seede, through a big stroke of good fortune, moves on to bigger and better things. So did the capital, which got not just the unexpected federal refuelling after 9/11, but a string of relatively effective mayors. In 1992? Sharon Pratt Kelly was serving out her single term, the one sandwiched between the notorious third and Redemption-Movie fourth terms of Marion Barry.