Exploring the art of prose


More than Mere Oblivion: Alexander Trocchi’s CAIN’S BOOK

This essay, in our Revisiting Classics series, previously appeared in a different form in Trop.  —CRAFT


By Peter Selgin •

Like rock stars, some novelists are eaten alive by their ardent fans. Embraced by severely circumscribed subcultures, their best performances are transformed from works of art into manifestoes, and cease to be read by ordinary people.

Scottish-born Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book (Grove Press, 1960), the second of his only two literary productions (a third work, Helen and Desire, was written to order and published by Olympia, the erotic press), is a good example.

Written by a heroin junkie who made no bones of his addiction—indeed, who embraced it as part of his “craft and sullen art”—no sooner did Cain’s Book hit the shelves at Brentano’s than it was hailed by addicts less as a masterwork of narrative prose than as the vindication of a lifestyle. Like Burrough’s Junkie published seven years earlier, the book was seen less as an expose of an infernal subculture than as a poetic license to shoot up.

In the form of an arbitrary journal, the book (for its sake, for now, I’ll resist calling it a novel) chronicles an unspecified period in the life of one Joe Necchi, junkie, who captains a gravel scow for the Mac Asphalt Company in New York Harbor and environs: the perfect junkie job, since it requires little skill and even less effort. The book opens with a description of its narrator watching the late afternoon sky above Flushing Bay turn pink. “The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted,” Trocchi writes, capping an almost homey first paragraph. Then, on a line of its own:

“Half an hour ago, I gave myself a fix.”

Thus, within two short paragraphs Cain’s Book’s two poles are fixed: the soft-lit, contemplative, introspective world of the brooding poet at one extreme, and the sharp, harsh, staccato world of junkiedom at the other. One hesitates to label these poles “positive” and “negative,” since Trocchi would surely have argued against such polarization. Instead he would claim that the junkie’s world is one and the same as the poet’s; that both extremes arise out of the same edifying oblivion, that rare “here-and-now-ness” attainable only under the influence of a highly addictive analgesic drug derived from the seed of the opium poppy, with a little hash or weed or Benadryl tossed in now and then for good measure. The book goes on to describe, in extravagant and even loving detail, the process of shooting up, after which the narrator lies contemplating the movements of a fly on the wall as it “worries” the dry corpse of one of its dead brethren.

Such extravagance devoted to morphine may seem tedious, but isn’t, thanks in large part to the quality of Trocchi’s prose, which rarely slips beneath the level of poetry. Soon afterwards the narrative drifts into a meditation on the state of the mind—not Trocchi’s mind, but the mind of the collective junkie—under the influence of the narcotic, and from there into the drug’s many virtues, chief among them being that it empties said mind of such nagging impudent questions as “What am I doing here?”, transporting its users to “another region, a painless, theoretical region, a play region, surprising, fertile, and unmoral.” In time we come to realize that the narrator seeks more than mere oblivion: he seeks unconditional freedom from the mean demands of society and civilization. Specifically, he seeks to avoid two things: questioning his existence, and—first and foremost—the need to work.

So we arrive at Cain’s Book’s covert theme, not heroin or drug addiction, but the illegitimacy of the Protestant work ethic, and, beyond that, the insulting indecency of the whole concept of “work” itself. This is the heart and soul of Trocchi’s book, a theme that appears to have been lost on its junkie adherents. Joe Necchi thinks work a bad idea and a worse habit—worse by an order of magnitude than heroin, which, though it takes possession of a subscriber’s every last waking thought, action, and desire, at least does not rob them of their primal nature—the underlying assumption here being that a man’s primal nature is not toward work, but toward nodding off while contemplating pink skies and dead flies.

Cain’s Book’s rambling, disjointed, arbitrary form is in itself a testimony against rigor: I’ll write my book if I please, when I please, any damn way I please. By means of generously deployed white spaces, Cain’s Book fluctuates freely between dramatic scenes, sociological, psychological, and philosophical tracts, and political rants, while every now and then tossing in a random quote from some earlier journal or notebook—as if what we’re getting hasn’t been random enough. Part of Trocchi’s “plan”—if that word can apply to such a radically undetermined performance—and also his genius consists of flaunting his comprehensive contempt for ambition of any strain. Like Picasso painting bulls in the dark with a candle flame, or Nijinsky dancing naked in a Baltic hotel room, he shows us how free an artist can be. Trocchi knows he can write; he doesn’t have to prove it, though he does, notably in the book’s brilliant set pieces, among them a warmly pathetic reminiscence of his unemployed (and unemployable) father, whose neurotic obsession centered around keeping the family washroom spotless, and a description of a storm during which Trocchi/Necchi’s barge is nearly lost at sea—as good as anything in Conrad or Patrick O’Brien. Rather than satisfy the thirst for a crisp, clean, plot-driven narrative, he slakes his own thirst for artistic expression, writing only when inspiration seizes him.

Or when in want of money for dope. The story goes that Cain’s Book wasn’t so much written as it was wangled from its author by a keen editor, namely Richard Seaver of Grove Press. By the time he began work on it, Trocchi had already burned half a dozen other editors for advances. In lieu of an advance, Seaver, who had known Trocchi from his Paris days and was a personal friend, paid Trocchi by the chapter, showing up at the door to his Greenwich Village apartment weekly with just enough cash for the next installment (and Trocchi’s next fix), thus keeping his author on a very tight leash. The result is a book that, however plotless, is never without urgency, poetry, and vigor. Even when waxing didactic—as when railing against our judicial system’s fanatical pursuit of its drug addicts—Trocchi rarely loses his verve. But Cain’s Book is no diatribe, nor is it meant to be a manifesto. It is in fact a novel in the truest sense of that word, one that, like few novels these days, shakes up its own form in bold, new, risky ways.

Lest anyone jump to the conclusion that I praise Trocchi merely for his iconoclasm, I offer the following evidence that he was, above all, a superb stylist:

I was standing in the wind, clutching at the doorway of my shack, the sea falling steeply away under my narrow catwalk, and for a moment I had the impression of tottering at the night edge of a flat world. Then I was going down like you go down on a rollercoaster, braced in the doorway, the cabin light flooding out round about me as though it would project me into the oncoming blackness. Black, then indigo as the horizon moved down like a sleek shutter from somewhere high above and flashed below the level of my eyes. A moment later the sea rose with a sucking sound and slid like a monstrous lip on to my quarterdeck about my ankles. It was icy cold. At that moment, staring down at it as it swirled round about the battened hatches, it occurred to me that I might be about to die.

Unlike Burroughs, Trocchi remained an unrepentant heroin user for the rest of his life. He was only fifty-nine when, in 1984, he died, not having written another book. It may be that, having had only one subject, he’d exhausted his material along with his talent. More likely, following the succés de scandale of the accidental masterpiece that is Cain’s Book, out of embarrassment he jettisoned whatever scraps remained of the discipline he so derided. In the end, as much or more than his heroin addiction, his philosophy killed him and his art.

“Love and work,” Freud tells us, are not merely fundamental to our mental well-being; they are the cornerstones of our humanity. Rebelling against the latter, Trocchi annihilated the former—his love for writing, his poetry, his passion. In what turned out to be his final act of self-immolation, he left behind a minor masterpiece, the smoldering heap of poetic embers and ashes that is Cain’s Book, the burnt offering of a singular soul.


PETER SELGIN is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He has written two novels, three books on the craft of writing, two essay collections, plays, and several children’s books. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, his memoir-in-essays, was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. His memoir, The Inventors, won the 2017 Housatonic Book Award. His latest novel, Duplicity, was a finalist for the 2020 Elixir Press Fiction Award and for the 2019 Craft First Chapters Contest. His essays have appeared in the Colorado Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Best American Essays, and Best American Travel Writing. His illustrations and paintings have been featured in The New Yorker, Forbes, Gourmet, Outside, Boston Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he is nonfiction editor and art director of Arts & Letters, the international journal of poetry and prose.


Featured image by Harry Gillen courtesy of Unsplash