• By Karen Tucker
  • Catapult
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
  • July 10, 2022

Two young Appalachian women embark on an intense, pill-fueled friendship.


A student in a workshop I taught some years ago was writing what she called her “addiction memoir” — as if this were a particular genre, true tales of substance abuse and what the writer makes of them. This student faced the usual workshoppy questions about character development and choices in structure and narrative arc, but after a half-hour or so, someone asked a question I think many of us had but thought better of voicing: “Why?” As in: Why did the writer turn to drugs in the first place?

The young woman blushed and laughed, and before I could steer us back on track (the writing, the writing), she simply said, “Why not?”

In Bewilderness, Karen Tucker’s evocatively titled debut novel about two teenaged friends who are opiate addicts, you can imagine this question — why? — coming up. From a boyfriend, say, or a parent, a counselor, a boss. Yet one of the ultimately satisfying things about this story is that Tucker does not fully answer it.

While there are hints of destructive family relationships, pain issues, boredom, etc., we never learn — or need to know — precisely why Irene (the 19-year-old narrator) and Luce (her charismatic bestie) continue to fall back into their addiction, no matter how close they get to being clean.

“Took Luce’s stash out of my pocket, shook a bag on the table, chopped it, sniffed up a rail,” Irene will sometimes recount at NA meetings. “A warm fizz filled my veins…The rest of my troubles faded into the dim, one by one. Soon the only thing left was the mysterious grace of god rippling all through me.”

Why not?

Bewilderness is set in the small towns and mountains of North Carolina, where Irene and Luce first meet while waitressing at a pool hall and become fast friends when they exact revenge on a slimy male customer. They work together, live together, get high together, and get clean together.

Things seem to be moving in the right direction, especially for Luce, who falls in love with another temporarily sober addict and plans to move away from town, from the mountains and drugs, from Irene — and toward a new, clean life with her boyfriend.   

Things don’t go exactly as planned.

The author deftly uses the elasticity of time in Bewilderness. A forward march through the chronology of the years captured here wouldn’t work as well as moving back and forth in the scenes of Irene and Luce’s relationship. There is a certain franticness in this time-jumping, as well as in Tucker’s use of experimental forms and contemporary structures.

These stylistic choices underscore the cyclical, spiraling nature not just of addiction, but also of love, of friendship, of desire, of grief. This happened, but so did that, and before that, this, and “Looking back, it was just another awful day in a string of awful days that not only stretched out behind us, but way out ahead of us too — so far ahead it was impossible to see where it ended.”

If there is such a thing as the addiction memoir, perhaps there is the addiction novel, too. Frequently, these stories are told by men, and they are shiny and alluring. Think Bright Lights, Big City. Think Less Than Zero. But in Bewilderness, things are grimy and dark. The physicality of the high is immediately rewarding — “Soon a thick pudding-like warmth began oozing through my bloodstream and I gazed around the room with renewed pleasure. This was how life ought to be” — but the happenings at gunpoint, the raw and sore body parts left over from a roofie-induced blackout, the car crashes, and close calls reversed by Narcan can put a tarnish on even the brightest trip.

Despite its darkness, the book includes funny moments (an almost-slapstick uninvited visit at a memorial service; a ridiculously authentic subreddit thread seeking help “for a friend”), as well as instances of real beauty — such as after one violent encounter and the dizzying drive away from it: “As we drove up the mountain out of that sad rainy valley, the fog burned away around us and the sky opened back up with all of its bright, dazzling promise.”

Irene’s voice is loud and clear in these pages, even as her reasoning is often muddled. Tucker has created in her a tough but vulnerable woman-on-the-verge. In Luce, there is something slicker, harder, yet still captivating, especially to Irene. If I ever wondered why about anything in Bewilderness, it was why Irene feels so drawn to her.

But then I imagine she is addicted not just to the warm fizz, pudding-in-the-veins sensation of the pills, but also to “Luce glowing in the yellow haze of lamplight. Her glorious dogtooth incisor.” Luce: her friend, her drug buddy, her clean pal, her partner in the backslide.

Why Luce? As my student clarified years ago, and as I thought while reading about these characters stumbling and climbing, falling low and getting high: Why not?

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]

Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist.

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