Written with a first-person on-the-scene journalistic style that allows its author/protagonist an eerie degree of detachment, Nic Sheff's TWEAK is the dark counterpoint to BEAUTIFUL BOY, written by his father, David Sheff. The elder writer's grief-filled memoir glows dimly like a distant planet of despair, while the son's account of the same events burns like an angry Mars.
Nic Sheff was an attractive, almost androgynous young man of great brilliance who felt empty and false inside until he began using methamphetamine. Then he became alive and whole. "It was like, I don't know, like everything else faded out." He changed from a youthful contender for the prizes of life --- a promising career as a writer, a hint of leadership, a quiet kindness that everyone noticed when he was a child --- to a street scavenger with no future at all.
At many junctures in Nic's tale, the reader wonders how he stays alive another day and what motivates him to get up and keep his body barely functioning long enough to torture himself once again by injecting meth, heroin, crack, or whatever he could get into his collapsing veins. He comes close to losing one arm to a horrific infection that smelled of death. He nurses a girlfriend through an overdose, saving her life by having the good sense to dial 911 --- but he doesn't draw any parallels between what happened to her and what could have happened to him. He loses every good job he ever has. He steals from his father, mother, stepmother and all their friends. He even robs his kid brother. He prostitutes himself, hanging out on the brutal margins of the gay bar scene, enduring any degradation for the magical few minutes that a high affords him.
Nic drifts downward, only occasionally straightening out under the vigilance of a treatment program. The book opens when he has just completed 18 sober months, and has a job and money in the bank. He runs into an old friend named Lauren and together they plunge headlong downhill, in a very short time using up every penny he has saved to feed their habit. He even gets "work" as a drug dealer, seeing it as a pretty easy gig. He winds up having a meal in a mission church he had volunteered at in grade school. "I know I felt sorry for them --- men and women wrapped in blankets on the hard concrete…I never in my life imagined being one of them."
After Lauren comes Zelda, rumored to be the real-life Lala Zappa, niece of the rock innovator Frank Zappa. It emerges in later therapy that Nic gravitates towards famous people and that Zelda reminded him of his mother. Zelda (called "Z" in his father's book) is just the sort of self-destructive, sexually insatiable, untrammeled addict who could help Nic in his non-existent career as a writer, and drag him into a pit of madness, danger and death. That she both loved and controlled him is evidenced by the many vignettes of their shared daily doom. When, skeletal and starving, he passes out while helping her move furniture into a van so the two of them could have a yard sale of her memorabilia to feed their addictions, "I wake up to Zelda shooting me up with some coke." They sleep through the day of the yard sale.
The exhausting cycle of rob, score, get high, rob, score, get high is finally broken when Nic gets caught breaking into his mother's place. His father gives him a choice: treatment or jail. He chooses treatment, and this time it works. Nic does not moralize or suggest that he has now chosen a better way of life. His simple statement, "Using just has no place in my life now and I can't see that ever changing," does not go very far, though it may strike a chord for its honesty. Maybe someone who has been as far down and as lost as Nic can't say more.
Nic and David are close these days. They were always meant to be, but Nic's addiction took away a lot of years they could have shared. Nic is working on living quietly and becoming authentic and true to himself, while David is getting back to work as a writer. They have been involved in some publicity tours that allow them to highlight the drug problem in America. They're both more steady and clear. Maybe it's the relief of knowing that tomorrow will be a decent day, and the tomorrow after that.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 19, 2008