Jason Carney’s debut memoir, Starve the Vulture (Kaylie Jones Books, Jan. 2015) is a book even the most avid haters of memoir could love. It seems to me impossible that a reader could fail to be gripped by Carney’s straightforward, vulnerable voice, which is able to imbue the harrowing events of his life with beauty, humor, and deep meaning.
Carney employs an age-old hook in the memoir’s circular structure—we end, ultimately, the same place we begin, in April 2007, at the scene of a car accident where Carney has narrowly avoided death and now waits by the side of a dying man for help to come.
“I am supposed to be here in this moment,” he writes in the book’s early pages, “But I don’t want to know this. I don’t want to face this.”
The “this” he’s referring to, the reader will learn, could be many things. Perhaps it’s Carney’s years-long addiction to crack and the relationships it has cost him. Maybe it’s the physical abuse he watched his mother suffer at the hands of his father, or his own sexual abuse, which remains a half-veiled mystery throughout the text. Maybe it’s the nights Mom took him to the bar as a drinking buddy, or the way she pretended to strange men that he was her brother and not her son. Maybe it’s his mental illness, his homophobia, his racism. Ultimately, Carney has to face them all—and, as his readers, we face those demons down with him. We watch him beat a gay man with a chair in a dark room, hear him weeping in the arms of a patient girlfriend at 2 a.m., and even taste the sweetness as he takes hit after hit from his friendly crack pipe.
Carney is a master of graceful details, like the curl of smoke, the angle of a street lamp, or the fall of his mother’s hair, vibrant images that sustain the text, even in its darkest moments.
We don’t just see ugliness, though. Carney is a master of graceful details, like the curl of smoke, the angle of a street lamp, or the fall of his mother’s hair, vibrant images that sustain the text, even in its darkest moments. Carney works by weaving together narratives from different points in his life without an explicit respect to chronology. However, there is order. Unlike other writers, Carney isn’t using these shifts in time to create suspense related to the events of the text. Rather, the tension is created by the evolution we see in Carney’s own character. By moving us back and forth, he denies the reader the opportunity to pinpoint a single moment of his redemption or downfall. Rather, we see that each state has occurred in stages, and neither is permanent. Near the middle of the book, we do spend a significant amount of time in 1988, when Carney was in a psychiatric facility. There, we meet Patrick, Carney’s homosexual, AIDS-afflicted roommate, who, despite all the hostility Carney directs at him, responds only with support. This especially manifests itself in regards to Carney’s writing, a habit his family never appreciated.
Carney’s poetry provides him the only outlet for his frustrations that isn’t related to drugs or violence, and it’s that art which ultimately led him to an unlikely fame. Included intermittently throughout the book are poems related to the themes that have defined his life. Carney has been honored as a Legend of Slam Poetry (2007) and appeared on several seasons of Russell Simmons’ Def Poets. We learn that even during this rise to success, his struggle with addiction continued, until the moment which bookends the text. It is in that moment that the unselfish, tender instincts we see in flashes from Carney (and want him to exploit) reveal themselves to him.
The reader also feels in the end that change is within their grasp, but not with ease. One lesson affirmed by Carney’s work is that many things in life are easier said than done. To truly starve the vulture that follows each of us means we must deny it the dark bits of our spirits, not by keeping them within us, but by accepting them and moving on from the hurt. We must, ultimately, forgive ourselves and those around us. If you or anyone you know is ready for such a struggle, this book would be a good place to start.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Who Should Read: Starve the Vulture book is a great fit for anyone who has or still does struggle with addiction, as well as those trying to overcome a history of abuse. Aspiring poets or prose-poets will also do well to pay attention to Carney’s prose stylings and lyrical descriptions.