Addiction is often a family affair. Sometimes those growing up in families with addiction overcome their circumstances and find a sustainable way to be a person in the world. Sometimes they don't.
Mikel Jollett did.
In Hollywood Park, Jollett — now frontman for the band Airborne Toxic Event — tells his story of growing up in a family struggling with addiction. Notably, his earliest years were spent at Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program that devolved into a notoriously violent cult. As a result, the earliest parts of his memoir contain chilling anecdotes about the repressive, bizarre, and dehumanizing experience of life there. What narratively works is that Jollett, being only a small child at the time, didn't know a world outside Synanon — so the scenes of cult life have a sheen of innocence to them, lending a real eeriness. But these accounts are heavily concentrated at the beginning, and for good reason, since he left as a young boy. He, perhaps understandably, doesn't revisit them that often later.
Maybe the most sympathetic, if flawed, figure in his childhood is his "surrogate" father, Paul. Paul really tries to be like a father to Jollett and his brother, and a steady domestic partner to Jollett's mother. But his alcoholism is a constant struggle. After a while Paul disappears from the scene and Jollett is left to wonder what happened to him. It's one of many instances throughout that illustrate one of the book's most important insights: that addiction is more like a chronic disease one manages than something one overcomes.
In maybe one of the most piercing moments in the book, Jollett recalls trying to help slaughter one of the rabbits his mother and Paul raised behind their house for food. The scene weaves the brutal facts of nature with a compassion for suffering. Jollett, being a sensitive kid, doesn't hit the rabbit hard enough over the head to instantly (and humanely) kill it. "The bunny lets out an awful wheezing sound," he recalls, "as its left eye bugs out and falls halfway from its socket." Paul then takes the club from him and smashes the rabbit's skull. "That's why you've gotta hit 'em hard," Paul says. "You've got to kill it on the first hit. That's the whole point." Life or death only. No needless suffering.
Gambling occupies a small but meaningful place in Jollett's story, too. Some of his fondest memories are of living with his father in Southern California and going to bet on horses at Hollywood Park, a race track. Here, he skillfully complicates the idea of vice. Gambling ironically leads to the forging of a bond between a father and son, both haunted by a dark past, with nowhere to take refuge but the present. His memories of the food they ate, the bets they made, and the way the horses thundered around the bend really resonate. These scenes are among the most skillfully rendered in the book, in fact, and the most affecting.
Jollett's account of his life in music — as a musician and a journalist — is less compelling than the story of his family, but is not without interest. As he finds meaning in music, it's often about how it helped him overcome the pain, the emotional deprivation, the stolen childhood. While this is meaningful and important life experience to share, I really would have liked to have read more about his thoughts on music as an art form, more on the craft of songwriting, or maybe even just more about the ideas that guide his life. He's capable of it; the memoir has clear literary ambition. He even claims Kafka and Dostoevsky as influences, so I would have welcomed more intense ideas-driven contemplation in the mode of those abyss-gazers.
Jollett, in his capacity as a musician and writer, also at one point says he wants to "make the pain useful." Now, if any two things should be exempt from utility, I'd place art and pain high on the list. But inspired by Robert Smith of The Cure, he continues:
"The longing, the fear, the heartache and dread, the ability to see these broken pieces of yourself like cracks in an armor through which you are better able to see the world: too broken to be normal, just broken enough to see beauty."
It's all a bit overheated here, as it is in other rhapsodic passages — and too reliant on binaries with a whiff of adolescence.
Those issues aside, Hollywood Park succeeds most in compassionately depicting the suffering and struggle of others with addiction: those left to obscurity; those barely holding on. Jollett's life story shows that you can pass through the gauntlet of pain and trauma to self-reliance and sustainable meaning. But most importantly, it shows that whether suffering is redemptive or pointless, the pain is the constant. Overcoming it is managing it.
Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and editor based in Chicago.