Dave Itzkoff's "Cocaine's Son" is a ghost story -- sort of. And it's fresh, involving and brilliant -- quietly. If this memoir suffers from a case of I-think-I've-read-this-kind-of-thing-before syndrome, well, that's not entirely the author's fault.
After all, Itzkoff is following in the still-muddy footsteps of David Sheff's "Beautiful Boy" (father analyzes son's drug abuse, moves millions), Augusten Burroughs's "Dry" (author analyzes his own alcohol abuse, finds mordant humor), and even James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" (author analyzes his own alcohol and drug abuse, fudges the truth). Itzkoff's "Cocaine's Son" is a worthy entry to this morbid genre, one that happily eschews overt melodrama.
Itzkoff is a New York Times reporter and contributor to the paper's ArtsBeat blog, and the aforementioned "ghost" is his father, a fur salesman, shoddy husband and drug addict. To steal some Coen Brothers phrasing, he is a man who wasn't there -- even when he was.
"Long after my mother had put me and my sister to bed -- he would come," Itzkoff writes. "He lurched and lumbered from room to room, shuffling from the foyer to the living room and stopping at my bedroom door. A trembling hand would tousle my hair, and an ample body would wrap his arms and legs around me and envelop me in its warmth, so close that I could feel his stubble against my own bare cheek and a warm tickle ran up my neck each time he exhaled."
If the tone seems both fearful and slightly admiring, so too is the nature of relationship between father and son. Believing his must be "a happy family," young Dave is appropriately confused by his father's disappearances and creepy late-night visits. "This must be what happens in every family, I assume, because it is what happens in mine."
Dave's mother has her own sense of confusion: "'Why does he take drugs?' I asked her.
"'How should I know?' she snapped back. 'If I knew that, maybe I'd take drugs myself.' "
To grow up in such an environment is no easy task, and as the memoir progresses, Dave struggles with the typical worries of the pre-millennium collegiate male: romance, career hopes and dorm-room drugs. Add to this the concept of one's father as addict-slash-screw-up, and this makes for a far more difficult Princeton existence that most.
Later, after the author has matured and married, he ponders whether he could eventually find himself in his father's shoes: "What guaranteed that one of my many habits and vices would not fester over the months and years to become a debilitating, soul-sucking affliction? Nothing."
Perhaps writing this story is Itzkoff's method of staving off the specter of addiction in his own life. And in finding some sense of acceptance with just who his father was and is, he seems to come to a place of serenity that feels not syrupy and Lifetime-movie-ish, but just, and earned:
"When would I know for certain that I had lived up to the challenge that my father's life presented, and fulfilled the potential that this day [his wedding day] offered? The only answer I can supply is the motto my father spoke to me so many times before, the watchword of the prideful Jewish parent: When you have children of your own, then you'll know."
"Cocaine's Son" is by no means a perfect memoir; admittedly, our interest lags whenever father departs for a spell. As strong a writer and likable a "character" Itzkoff is, it is the rest of the family that draws us in. But even its lesser moments have impact and poise, as well as humor.
Honestly, it's hard not to fall for a writer capable of this hazy tableau: "I used to have this tradition -- of waking up early on Sunday morning, packing a small pipe with some marijuana, and smoking it while I watched 'The McLaughlin Group.' "
A brisk, deceptively simple read, Dave Itzkoff's memoir is a tale of close-calls, might-have-beens, somewhat-successes, quasi-tragedies, and ultimately, forgiveness. It's a lot for one person to handle, but such is life when Dad is a junkie.
Christopher Schobert is a member of the Buffalo Spree staff and a freelance Buffalo critic.
By Dave Itzkoff
Villard240 pages, $24