"Fine, fidgety riffs on smoking—sudden explosions of surprise and epigrammatic density.…A sharp and breath-catching collection, full of the edgy clarity of renunciation."—Kirkus Reviews
"In her enticing second book…Stern explores the rituals, economics and cultural role of smoking, and the exquisite hold tobacco takes over those who enjoy it. She links more than 50 often stunning and always intriguing pieces in a mélange of genres, including fiction, memoir, history and criticism.…Desire for a smoke and desire for a lost lover intermingle throughout the book, fading into each other until they are almost indistinguishable, and while Stern's writing is never slack, it is most compelling in these passages.…Puts a new twist on the discussion of the delicious passion, and equally delicious irony, of smoking in a nonsmoking world."—Publishers Weekly
"After death and taxes now comes a third certainty: that this book will be placed on someone's politically-incorrect-book-of-the-year list.…Stern's writing is witty and peppered with interesting references, and the best pieces are her recollections of her youth and family in what was then Rhodesia, where she grew up on a tobacco farm and where the pleasures of addiction and cultural inquiry took root."—Booklist, starred review
"Miss Stern, clearly an unreformed addict of nicotine, has written a book that, one has to admit, is addictive. Better buy it before it is banned. And keep it out of sight of the children."—The Economist
"Stern writes superb prose, ranging in style from straightforward reportage to adventurous, jokey wordplay, all of it illuminated by scholarly, literary and—especially—film references.…The Smoking Book is good writing by any standard, and much food for thought for people who smoke and for people who happen to love smokers, and for anyone curious about the history, economics and cultural ramifications of tobacco."—Toronto Globe and Mail
Chosen as a 1999 Village Voice Literary Supplement "Writer on the Verge."
The Smoking Book
by Lesley Stern
In the dead of night he is wakened by a strange sound, an animal-like scratching and scuffling just outside the bedroom door. Some wild creature sharpening its claws, shredding the carpet—though the muffled sound of heavy breathing is not like an animal. It is utterly and horribly human. He reaches out for her, but his arm moves in the dark through a vast and empty space. She isn't there. He is alone in the bed and there is something or someone strange in the house. In an instant he is rigid, deafened by the sound of his own heart. Eventually, after a long time, the house is quiet again, just the distant chugging of the fridge, the dog gently groaning in its sleep.
He is reassured by the sleeping dog, realizes he must have dreamed the alien sounds, dreamed into being fears long dormant. These fears, acquiring life, had turned on him like vengeful demons: unnerving, but not as bad as an intruder in the house. Better they assault just him, in his dreams, than his children. He thinks of the children sleeping, feels a sudden pain that softens into tenderness and slowly passes. Then, remembering that the children are children no longer, have not lived at home for years, he stretches, breathes deeply, and folds into sleep again. He drifts in and out, dozing for a while, enjoying the sensation of relief, a sense of reprieve after a false alarm, a close shave that brings you to the edge—even if only momentarily—of a precipice.
Suddenly a sharp and ugly sensation yanks him into wakefulness. He leaps up, finds himself crouching on the bed, ready to spring, go for the jugular. A sliver of light moves swiftly across the crack under the door. Silence. No gentle groans or somnolent growls, even the dog is silent. Or silenced. He anticipates a terrible almost-human howling, envisages Max Cady in Cape Fear prowling the house, passing through the walls like the holy ghost, invisible. He can feel the presence of a figure on the other side of the bedroom door, someone holding their breath, listening to the silence. His own eyes grow accustomed to the dark, although he cannot tell whether he is now seeing or feeling in the dark. The door handle moves, imperceptibly, hardly at all. No, not at all, it hasn't moved, he tells himself. But even as he tells himself this, he knows there is a man on the other side of the door, holding the door handle in one hand—turning it calmly, implacably, by minute degrees—while in the other he grips a knife smeared with canine blood. "He's coming for me, to slit my throat. And no one will know." In a flash he sees himself: pathetic, like some beleaguered beast, baring its throat to the butcher. Cautiously he slinks back under the covers. He will pretend to be asleep, but he is alert—he can see through the loose weave of the blanket—and will trap the intruder.
The door edges open and in the crack light flickers. A figure moves into the room, a dark silhouette.
The figure turns into the light and he sees: it is her. Only her, a figure as familiar as his own body. The tension begins to dissipate, but slowly, uneasily. It is as though knots have formed through his being from tip to toe. He holds his breath and watches as she moves across the room, easing the wardrobe door open, carefully trying to avoid the habitual squeak. I must oil the hinges, he thinks. With her back to the bed, shielding the flashlight beam, she scrambles among old clothes piled at the back of the wardrobe; she burrows into the bottom of voluminous coat pockets, turns shirts inside out, baggy jeans upside down. He knows that she will already have gone through the house searching in jars, behind books in the bookcase, at the back of untidy drawers filled with junk. It happens once a year or so: the evil spirit comes upon her in the night, and she invades her own house, excavating the accretions of daily living, wanting desperately to find a remnant of the past, a sign of life. "Not much to ask," she'd say if pushed, "a little thing."
That thing which is so simply and satisfyingly itself: a cigarette.
He pretends to be asleep, to not bear witness. And after a while he does drift off, but it is into a troubled dreaming he has fallen, as though her edginess has pervaded his sleep. When he wakes again several hours later, she is still not there. He gets out of bed and goes to draw the curtain to shut out the moonlight pouring into the room. But as he gets groggily out of bed, he realizes that earlier it was pitch-dark—there is no moon tonight. At the window he looks down and sees that the porch light is on, a floodlight illuminating a scene of ritual. She is on her knees under the big flowering eucalyptus, which drips redly in the harsh light, and she is digging. Around her are strewn hyacinths that have been ripped out of the earth. Her pale pink candlewick dressing gown is smeared with dirt and her hands, which she now lifts up in front of her face, are muddy.
What is she doing? Praying? Burying a body? Stashing some incriminating evidence in a safe place—her own front yard?
She is holding something in her hands, cradling some object, some precious mysterious thing. Which she now lays on the ground, unwraps the cloth that is wound around it, and tenderly wipes off the dirt with the hem of her dressing gown. Then it dawns on him: it is not a burial ceremony that has taken place in this clandestine theater, but a disinterment, a grave robbery.
She looks at the object that fits so snugly in the palm of her hand. The cellophane wrapping remains intact, the contents will still be pristine, preserved all this time in their garden grave. Can she bring herself to do it, will she tear the wrapping?
She remembers, all those years ago going out, armed with a shovel, into the garden and digging a grave. A small grave, but deep. And in it she had buried a tiny coffin. Her last pack of cigarettes. In Smoke Stoppers they had told her: "Imagine the pack of cigarettes as a coffin, and all the cigarettes you've smoked as corpses." As a young teenager she'd had a boyfriend who'd said, "Kissing a smoker is like putting your tongue in a wet ashtray filled with cigarette stubs and ash. Or even worse," he'd said, warming to the horror, "it's like putting your tongue into a cremation urn—full of the ashes of a dead person." But these were not the injunctions and warnings that had provoked her private and elaborate rite; rather, she had done this in order to enact a ceremonial separation, to anchor the mourning, to stake the grieving process. Now she sees that this was a gesture bound to fail; rather than letting go, she had perfidiously conceived of this little coffin as a safety deposit box, a last resort, a final refuge. Yet how could it ever represent finality or be exhaustively symbolic? As she looks at this small pack, at once wondrous and pathetic, as she ponders the few cigarettes contained within it, the very fewness of them calls up the thousands, millions of cigarettes smoked in her lifetime. Is it the activity of smoking that is mourned, she now wonders, or the individual being of those cigarettes? She remembers a friend saying to her (or perhaps she had read it, the book on her pillow, the words entering consciousness as she fell asleep): "Smoking is like movie watching: often you can't put your finger on what it is that is so pleasurable about the images unfolding before your eyes, wrapping around you in the dark." Like cigarettes it is not the special taste or aroma, color or movement, narrative even, that produces pleasure, but that slight giddiness that springs from the not quite the same in which we recognize the same tobacco.
Why is it better to last than to burn?—Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
I enact fanaticism. Extrapolating every obsessive nuance from an arcane repertoire of bodybuilding gestures. Instead of smoking. In order to resist the memory, I meditate and stretch and walk a tightrope, never looking down, only straight ahead—into an old-age future full of graceful backbends and carrot juice insouciance. Still, I retain a skepticism about the "healthy body," about this mythically modernist corpus as generative of a "healthy mind." How can anyone with their wits about them possibly believe in a healthy mind? Yet a rampantly pernicious faith attaches to this ontological impossibility.
A healthy mind is like a body of writing in which all fury has risen to the surface and there been scrupulously skimmed away by the janitors of moderation. They who lurk with their nets and weights and balances, wads of blotting paper and fire extinguishers.
Robinson Crusoe recounts the advice given to him by his father. The father exhorts his son to persevere, not to deviate from the "middle station of life." It is a chillingly detailed passage of writing. The details are passed on, not merely down the line of inheritance, down the line of least resistance (on the contrary, as the younger son, Crusoe's inheritance is ambiguous), but into, and through, the body of this supremely narrative text. The paternal advice constitutes a speech that fathers fortune and inscribes a whole tradition of Anglo-Saxon morality. It is a speech about retention and the building of fire escapes. On "his" island Crusoe constructs a building with rooms to hold all his worldly goods, going to elaborate lengths to safeguard them against the weather, theft, and fire, while he himself continues to sleep in a cave. The exercise of self-denial is evident. But the contortions of virtue are more intricate than one might imagine. Through a characteristically Puritan mode of elision, the body is conflated with worldly goods. Through this procedure, the body is in fact objectified, distanced. It can only be kept safe if detached. It is put in a safe place—that is, not the sleeping place, not the bedroom. By this maneuver, the mind is protected from clutter-mind and body, separated out, are actually coerced into a negatively metaphrastic liaison. We can read Robinson Crusoe as a dual-purpose manual, to do with abstinence and building—bodybuilding, empire building, character building, and home building. It is the Anglo-Saxon mode of construction—you build the fire escape first.
It galls me to be renouncing nicotine now as the new moralism gathers and rises and suffocates. Every time I drive over the Horseshoe Bridge and see that video image of Yul Brynner, I want to throw up. There he is projected against the sky, larger than life, flanked by up-to-date statistics detailing the number of deaths in this state caused by smoking. Stop smoking, smell better, and live longer, they say. Be prepared! If you've got a clean mind in a healthy body, then come Judgment Day you'll make your fortune. You can fight your way to the front of the fire escape queue with a clean conscience. Don't squander matches, shore up against the future, invest in safety deposits. In the face of all this, the adolescent romance of smoking returns, seductively: an edge of seediness, tackiness, dingy saloons, the glamour of delinquency. To smoke is to break the rules, to affront, to refuse the compact of civility.
If there is a strain of romance that circulates through the sordid and the flamboyantly excessive, so too there is a romance of renunciation. Take Casablanca. Casablanca makes you feel good for simultaneously giving up and holding on. It's the Puritan romance of anal retention. Now, Voyager is also about renunciation, I suppose, but at least it flirts with perversity, and it's profoundly acute in charting the ruinous relation between smoking and desire. Think, though, of those other movies, fraught with urgency, those that ask—and it's not an idle question—Why is it better to last than to burn? Think of A Bout de Souffle, Written on the Wind and The Bad and the Beautiful. (Gone with the Wind, though it is less about renunciation and all about romance, is nevertheless finally dedicated to a vision of rebuilding, of endurance. A pragmatic lesson arises out of the conflagration: in order to preserve the white colonial dream, build a fire escape first.) Think of Emmylou Harris—in the face of utter loss, of the irretrievable, she sings: "And the prairie was on fire." Here, it isn't even a question of which is better, but neither is there any question of escape, of calculated survival. He's burning in the desert and she's alive. So when she sings, "I don't want to hear a sad story, full of heartbreak and desire," she means it, but nevertheless she must tell the story, register—in her voice—this incendiary sadism, this being-eaten-aliveness.
Against the tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Casablanca, there's a lineage undoubtedly romantic in its own way but less retentive—Brünhild, The Doors, Peggy Lee…When Peggy Lee sings "Is that all there is?" so much depends on "all." Or nothing.