IN THE REALM OF HUNGRY GHOSTS: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH ADDICTION by Gabor Maté (Knopf), 465 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Finally, a book on addiction whose protagonist won’t end up recanting his words on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Not that I disliked James Frey’s 2003 breakout novel A Million Little Pieces. In fact, I read it in four sittings.
But if that resolute tale of despair and renewal were to remain the most widely read book on addiction of this millennium, I would call Oprah to say we have a problem.
Fortunately, Gabor Maté’s In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts is a more nuanced and complex meditation on what opium-eater Thomas de Quincy called the “abiding darkness.”
Maté knows this darkness well. For the last seven years, he’s been staff physician at the Portland Hotel, a harm-reduction and residence facility on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and has seen his share of hungry ghosts.
Stories haunt this book: a middle-aged heroin addict recounts childhood nights locked in the washing machine by his mother; women recount abuse of every sort. Many of Maté’s subjects are HIV-positive; most have lost everything.
Yet for all the suffering in these addicts’ lives, Maté does not regard them as victims. By listening to them and capturing with a novelist’s precision their language and other ways of expressing themselves, he posits an unusual, bold twist on the classic doctor-patient relationship and its built-in imbalance of power.
Structurally, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts is a joint venture between Maté the writer and Maté the scientist. About half the book focuses on the stories told by his patients, and the other half explores in theoretical terms the intricate connections between the physiological, social and psychological components of addiction.
A powerful and compassionate work.