“All human passions—exercise, sex, meditation—all led to the same results, a dopamine rush followed by a nice stretch where you don’t feel pain, filth, hunger, or sadness.”
Simon is an aspiring actor who is getting by doing webcam modeling for a gay cam site until he gets his big break. The problem is his heroin addiction is sucking up all his money and his will to go to auditions. Simon eventually takes to prostitution (or “gentlemanning” as he calls it) to try to earn enough money for his habit, but when his usual dealer gets thrown in jail, he knows it’s time for a change.
Much like its predecessors, such as Donald Goines’s Dopefiend and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Reiss doesn’t shy away from showing the complete squalor a broke heroin addict lives in. One of the first things we learn about Simon is that his hot water’s been shut off for months and hasn’t had a good shower in a while. The descriptions of his grime and bodily odor are vivid.
Reiss is masterful at balancing the tone of the book. Despite the depressing nature of Simon’s situation, there are great moments of humor. In one on Simon’s many misadventures, he steals several books from a Barnes and Noble, believing that their policy prevents the security guard from chasing him beyond the store. The security guard gives chase anyway. Towards the end of this episode, he ends up running into the first girl he ever kissed. Then the security guard catches up, forcing him to run more. There is a lot of humor to this scene, but Reiss also points out how awful it is for Simon. The wonderful memory that girl had of him has been replaced by a much more unflattering one.
Simon suffers many humiliations, the worst of which is probably when he goes to a rich man’s house to perform his first act of prostitution. The rich man proves to be far more aggressive than he anticipated. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable to read, but at the same time I had to keep reading to see where the scene would go. This is another great strength in the book. The stories of Simon’s misadventures are very entertaining. They move along at a good pace with little time wasted. I found the book difficult to put down and finished it pretty quickly.
If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that the ending feels a bit too tidy. Simon goes through hell and it’s satisfying to see him kick his habit and come out on top. There’s certainly a sense that he earned it. Still, the idea that he might eventually relapse or fall back into his old habits if he doesn’t put in effort to keep clean every day doesn’t even seem to be considered
Jonathan Reiss’s Getting Off is an excellent debut. It’s both disgusting and engaging, entertaining, and full of excellent writing. Stories about junkies are nothing new, but Reiss’s own take on it is well worth reading.