A Review of Playing Chicken With Thanatos

I’m not going to bury the lead. I thought Dire McCain’s book was a wonderful read. Funny, harrowing and emotional, it is a wicked fast-paced ride that is worth checking out.

So, what is this book about? Playing Chicken with Thanatos chronicles Dire’s life as a teen growing up in California and her descent into drug addiction. Dire and her friends spend their days looking for kicks. They have a knack for finding people they can use to get free drugs, and this quest for drugs and parties eventually becomes their lifestyle. Along the way, she hangs out with drug dealers, gang members, skinheads, rockers, yuppies and jocks, just to list a few “types” that come into her circle. And, as a young party girl, she draws the attention of the odd ephebophile or two. Of course, it’s all fun and good times hanging out with friends and getting high.

The first part of the book reflects this mood. The style and tone are light. It almost reads like a picaresque novel, with the action jumping from party to party. Eventually, the good times start to fade. A darker mood takes over as the monotony of addiction settles in. Drugs lose their fun and the personal and physical toll becomes greater. This lifestyle leaves her hollow, an emotional shell.  However, she does not succumb completely to this hell. In the end, there is hope and promise ahead.

While the book itself is episodic, with many chapters able to stand on their own, there is a strong arc and continuity to the story.  The book is structured into three parts, each part named after rivers running through Hades – Acheron (woe), Phelegethon (fire) and Lethe (oblivion).  Thematically, this book is a journey through the underworld, beginning with melancholy before moving through to the excitement and destructiveness of her party days, and on to the eventual final destination, oblivion. It is here that she sees the exit and begins to leave this (under)world behind. For me, the end feels like someone surfacing from the water after having been held under, although Dire does not use that imagery. It ends with her taking the first steps out of the claustrophobic life of addiction and the emotional and psychic toll that life wrought. And there it is. 

While the narrative takes place in the 80s and 90s, the dating within the book is intentionally vague. In an odd way, the story is not necessarily tied to that time, but transcends it. I also feel she does that with place. The work is set in California and she is fairly specific as to locations. However, the action seems to take place without regard to these geographical boundaries, while remaining intimately tied to them. It is not the location or the time that is important here; it is the personal journey.

Dire has an interesting writing style. It’s relaxed, yet intense and straightforward. The language is neither forced nor flowery. The text itself is layered, and filled with interesting allusions and asides. Just check out the chapter titles! When she referenced Fedor Emelianenko, it made me sit up and take notice. Then along came nods to Lolita and Magnum PI and on and on. For me, these “easter eggs” added a depth and playfulness to the text.

There you go. What more do you want? I know I’ve barely scratched the surface for the narrative and did not mention any of the other players except in passing but, hey, this is not Cliff Notes. Read the book and find out for yourself.

Playing Chicken With Thanatos
by Dire McCain