The Sacred Herb / The Devil’s Weed by Andrew Struthers, New Star Books, 2017, ISBN 978 1 55420 115 0, $19.00 pb, 200 pages.
Andrew Struthers is a latter-day hippie. That’s what he calls himself in this book. He says he lived for seven years in a “hippie commune” up Clayoquot Sound. There, he had a “hippie hot tub” (an old bathtub in the back yard with a fire pit underneath?) in which he submersed himself “breathing through a yard of rubber hose that once connected the propane tank to the water heater.” He attended the 2005 Vancouver Folk Music Festival and watches his friends, “brightly clad hippies, popping in and out of the porta-potties.”
For sure, he fits the stereotype. He avoids jobs unless he’s broke (but he works hard on his passions, especially writing and drawing, and these sporadically lead to sporadic jobs); he believes in a kind of Walden Pond anarchism, trending left on many issues, but with no serious interest in political action, being ambivalent about even his anarchism: “We’re poised to junk every institution that makes escape from brute existence possible, and believe me, the only thing better than getting back to Nature is getting away from her.”
At the same time, he distrusts institutional authority, as an example of which he mentions the politicians who made cannabis illegal. His interactions with his family are minimal, but he claims and, in the rare instances that present themselves in the book, shows himself to be a loving father, ex-husband, and son. And of course, and most prominently, he loves getting juiced, lifting off, inhaling a fatty, and smoking a jay.
He reminds me of Harold Hedd, famous from a comic strip in the original Georgia Straight. Hedd had no coherent life: no job, no family (except his cousin Elmo from the prairies), and no politics. His life is episodic, with the episodes beginning, usually, under the influence. In that state Hedd will, for example, place a bet with a friend that he can sleep out on Wreck Beach without being hassled by the police. He puts together a fake log from wire and canvas, paints it up, carries it to a good spot on the beach, crawls in and beds down. Unfortunately, some drunken rednecks, looking for firewood, expose him at the same time as the police are patrolling the beach. The police prefer the rednecks, mere drinkers of beer, and beat the shit out of the druggie Harold. He pays off the bet with coinage embedded in a jar of honey.
Struthers is also an autodidact, like Hedd, full of arcane wisdom and obscure facts. Hedd seems self-educated, whereas Struthers attended UVic (Around the World on Minimum Wage, 2014) and regards some of his professors as friends and gurus. Hedd reads little though he loves Sherlock Holmes (a fellow drug-inspired genius), whereas Struthers reads widely in science, philosophy, and literature and loves to lecture about the revelations he encounters there. Both hippies are eager to give advice and disperse useful knowledge. For example, one Hedd strip explains to male readers what to do when you wake up with an erection (“standing for the Queen”) but need to pee (you stick it out over the kitchen sink). Or what to do when you’ve got the munchies and are tempted to approach the golden arches (nourish yourself from real breasts). Struthers descants learnedly on various grades and sources of pot, on rolling a joint, and on using a vape, and he goes on forever like a latter-day Samuel Taylor Coleridge about metaphysics and the merits of dialectical thinking.
Hedd’s adventures were a countercultural high point for me, and I enjoy Struthers’ adventures as much, though I’ve learned to take those that are woven into a single narrative — Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan (2004), and Around the World — in the same comic-strip, episodic way. Every few days, I read a chapter — which explains why it took so long for me to write this review. When I try to read these books through, they seem monotonous in their wise-cracking, one-trope-per-line style and in the Struthers hippie caricature. There isn’t even much of a plot; each book describes a journey wherein Struthers sets out for no clear reason to do things he doesn’t end up doing. His first book, The Green Shadow (1995), based on a series of Georgia Straight articles) tells, in the episodic format of a diary, a comic story of the Clayoquot Sound protest. The only thing you learn here about Struthers is that he’s an iconoclast whether its greens or governments involved, and that he has a good sense of humour.
While Struthers, in his first two books, isn’t openly acting under the influence (though the bar in Tofino serves as the launching pad of some episodes), his impulsive decisions, quirky take on things, and erratic actions suggest that he’s usually high. This book confirms that impression, telling us that, from grade 12 (Prince George) on, he has been constantly in another place: “Pete lit up a bomber . . . . I took three aqualung puffs and tumbled ass-backwards into Narnia.”
The adventures recounted in Around the World, his third book, start at the University of Victoria with a gram of hashish, eaten at the bus stop. Instead of taking the bus home, he gets on one that is taking student protesters over to the legislature to fight Bill Bennett’s cutbacks to university funding. There, he makes a terrific sign, “Bend over Bill,” that is copied by other students, then chanted by them as they march. However, fearing that his sign is libelous, or that it might be illegal to threaten a person with sodomy, and that he could be mistaken for the instigator of the protest, Struthers ditches the sign and goes home. This sets the tone for Around the World: most of his adventures are kicked off or augmented by hashish, and proceed in the same haphazard way.
The Sacred Herb / Devil’s Weed is not narrative memoir like the other books, but rather a mock essay with the thesis that cannabis should (or should not) be legalized. This form, practiced by newspaper / magazine journalists like Dave Barry, Eric Nicol, Alan Fotheringham, and a host of others, seems to me to be more congenial for Struthers than the book-length narrative, and it makes this his best book so far. The mock essay features, for one thing, the caricaturized narrative persona that Struthers always works with. Nicol, for example, who I regard as a west-coast precursor of Struthers’, generally plays the role of the domestic Dagwood, while Struthers is ever the furry freak. For another thing, Struthers has always used racy metaphors and similes, and these are de rigueur in any mock essay.
Here’s Struthers going on in The Sacred Herb about the effect of pot on his grades in school: “In high school I skipped grades like pebbles on a lake until I started smoking pot, then my academic standing nose-dived like Venezuela. But elided from my record is the fact that in high school I was so bummed out I spent my spare time devising hang glider accidents so I could off myself without my parents feeling guilty, and after I began to puff, everything except my GPA, from friendship to spiritual health to girls to life itself, all blossomed like desert flowers after a flash flood.”
Here’s Nicol, explaining how TV golf has influenced the real thing. It’s one of my favorite Vancouver Province columns, entitled “Divot Drag” and collected in Space Age Go Home (Ryerson, 1964): “TV golf is directly responsible for slowing up golf on thousands of courses all across the country. The wildest duffer, after watching Dow Finsterwald take five minutes to line up a putt, takes six minutes (to be on the safe side) before flubbing his putt into a sand trap. The goofus whose ball rests in an abandoned cowbird’s nest in the rough emulates Julius Boros in the meticulousness with which he removes stray wisps of guano, squints at the tree he will pitch over to the green, and chooses the iron that will do this for him, before he at last tops a groundhopper ten yards deeper into the outback. Meanwhile, back at the tee, the foursomes are piling up in a coagulation of mutual loathing. The joy and wonder with which stout Cortez burst from the bush to stare at the Pacific have their emotional antithesis in the feeling with which the golfer drags his cart out of the trail between tees to find twelve people milling around, waiting for a Jack Nicklaus fifty yards up the fairway to finish tossing bits of grass into the air to establish wind direction . . . . Golfers finishing eighteen holes arrive back at the club-house in an advanced state of malnutrition . . . . It used to be only duck hunters who issued forth at five in the morning to try to shoot their birdies. Now the pale dawn finds the Gary Players already on the fairway, measuring the density of the dew and waiting for the nocturnal weasel to hole out.”
For this book-length mock essay, Struthers adopts features of the longer academic essay, with prologue, epilogue, acknowledgments and bibliography. But the book is also two books back-to-back, introducing a whole new (postmodernist?) element of dialectical structure, yin and yang, Christ and the Devil. You read through from one end until you encounter upside-down text, then flip the book over to start from the other end.
The Sacred Herb contains the acknowledgments and bibliography (Chicago Style) and starts with a “Prolog,” so maybe if you are flipping around trying to figure the book out you would be inclined to read that part first. If you go that route, you read through to the “Epilog,” then flip the book over, to find that The Devil’s Weed starts with an Epilog, a sort of continuation of the Epilog of Sacred Herb. And, of course, the Prolog ending of Devil’s Weed leads into the Prolog beginning of Sacred Herb. The covers of the two are also parallel, The Sacred Herb featuring Christ, obviously high, holding a joint in his right hand and his sacred heart in his left, and The Devil’s Weed featuring the devil, as a goat, inviting eager supplicants to have a drag on a hookah pipe. Struthers, as mentioned, likes dialectical thinking.
The Sacred Herb, containing the “scientific” side of the argument for legalization, tells in its Prolog how the two books were researched: “I Skyped a hundred Facebook friends and sure enough, ninety-nine of them had smoked weed. I drilled them for tokers’ tales, and pretty soon my potboiler was writing itself.” Struthers himself contributes many a story to the anecdotal evidence collected from his friends. The best story tells of “how I saw Canada.” It starts with Struthers trying to get a ride from Banff, where he has been visiting a friend who was “trying to keep off the grass,” back to Vancouver: “I was so desperate for a puff I burned a canoe of chronic behind a highway sign before I stuck out my thumb.” The trouble was, he was on the wrong side of the highway. Before he knows it, he’s approaching Calgary. There, he jumps out of his first ride only to be instantly picked up again: “The driver said he was heading to Toronto. I said, ‘Me too’.” So begins a lengthy odyssey to all the provinces except Newfoundland.
Having shrunk each piece of anecdotal evidence to thumbnail size, Struthers deals with the problem of organization: “Now all I needed was a gimmick to paste their anecdotal evidence into something book-shaped. This is where fiction trumps non-fiction. In the pulps, a mysterious dame [he describes her later as wearing silk panties and a fancy hat] would stroll into my office right about now, light a marijuana cigarette and say she had some questions she needed answered. Twenty, to be exact. And when I began to dig, I’d find out I was on the trail of something big. And that was exactly what happened”.
Not exactly. Twenty Questions is how he arranged the scientific side of the argument, not the anecdotal side, and the scientific side, “The Sacred Herb, landed back on my desktop with a thump you could hear from cyberspace.” In The Devil’s Weed, which he wrote in two weeks and easily sold to his publisher, there’s no dame, no catechism. The anecdotes are framed by and woven in with some of Struthers’ own stories, and grouped in the season in which they took place, and within each of the four seasons grouped according to setting: road-trip experiences, travel experiences, hot-tub experiences etc. These are ways in which a kid would organize a school essay to cover up for the fact that the plan is free-association — which it is, as indicated by lack of paragraphing.
The effect is dizzying and disorienting. This may be appropriate to an attempt to portray the devil’s argument for legalization, but to me it’s boring — exactly what you’d get if you asked 100 fisherpersons to tell you about their most notable catches and then arranged them by season and then maybe by fish species or location. You get a stupefying series of big fish stories, the ones caught and the ones that got away. In this section, I gave up reading about what happened to “Dave from Destruction Bay” and “Bill from Brampton,” and focused myself by looking for “I” and Struthers’ own experiences, which I could then match to the ones in The Sacred Herb.
It seems (the sequence is confusing here) that after Struthers too easily writes The Devil’s Weed (his publisher says, “I’ve never shed such tears over a manuscript, at least not in a good way”), he gets a contract for a full-length book. Following that, The Sacred Herb, written over many difficult months that include upsetting events like his mother’s death, is rejected. Struthers blames this on cannabis: “I’ve been blitzed since I signed the contract.” But then Struthers visits his dealer and picks up “an eighth of strawberry cough, the same shit Clive Owen and Michael Caine smoke in Children of Men.” Inspiration strikes (some effective re-writing and, presumably, the idea of putting the two books back-to-back), and the publisher is hooked.
For many of the questions asked in The Sacred Herb, Struthers has to admit that “further research is needed.” In the same way that he never really takes the Loch Ryan on a last voyage, and never really goes around the world, he never really comes up with a good argument for legalization. The point is to be witty, not wise. The closest he gets to one is the old argument (likely a valid one) that making weed illegal causes more problems than legalizing would. But as Struthers says there will still be problems, and major ones. One of these problems is the inhaling of benzene, which happens with tobacco or campfires and which is something Struthers can’t avoid because smoke arouses cozy memories from his evolutionary past, and because vapes and baked goods just don’t provide the same hit (though the chocolate cake ingested while in the hippie hot tub comes close).
Overall, Struthers concludes, he is for legalizing everything, including pot, then abstaining from most of it.
The constant collapsing of the pretentions of science is funny. The call for further research is for Struthers an excuse to try another variety of pot, or a more expensive vape — like maybe one that accesses the Internet (like a smart TV or appliance) and gives him information about his high, or personal advice about how to act now that he is as high as he is. As for the scientists, the need for further research justifies the application for yet another grant. There is a hint that the science is pretty clear but no one, including Struthers, wants it to be conclusive.
The first question posited by the pot-smoking dame in silk panties is, “How did all this pot smoking begin? The answer: Cannabis swept out of the steppes of central Asia in the saddlebags of Scythians, also known as Celts, around three thousand years ago. The Scythians were the bikers of their day, slaying everything that moved . . . as they slaughtered their way south into Greece and India, baked to the bejeezus on ceremonial sativa . . . .” Struthers’ account is vivid and enthusiastic, partly because he is, proudly, one of these Celts, though of course a latter day one, cornered at birth in Nowhereland (the British Isles), and pacified by Christianity and the Enlightenment.
But what the dame in silk pants really means is (Question 2) — “no, I mean how did it begin for you personally?” The answer starts Struthers’ own narrative, much less exciting than the Scythian one, and not told chronologically of course because this is a catechism. The arc of the narrative is question 15: “Why do pot smokers worship Satan?” The answer involves dialectics. To really understand the world you have to be able to think in terms of opposites so you can get above those opposites or “think outside the box.” Cannabis helps Struthers with this. For others, it prevents them from thinking at all.
This is also the answer to what is maybe the big question for Struthers, an earlier question, #13: “Will pot make me a better artist?” That is, once you’re outside the box, what happens with this important thing in your life, art? This is the big question for readers too, who have invested in Struthers’ book. But the answer is “no, but it will make you feel like one.” In other words, if you smoke you will likely be more confident as you draw or write, which could help. You will also be more accident prone, sometimes in a creative way as with Struthers’ trip across Canada, sometimes not. As Struthers goes on to say, cannabis will augment the “sloppiness” bred into our brains: “Creative thinking is just a stylish form of jumping to conclusions.” Pot, he argues, can kick us off the edge of safety.
Struthers illustrates this point about confident sloppiness by telling how he, like Byron, woke up one morning to find himself famous: “I had moved to Victoria to pursue a career in film or, as the lay person would say, I’d spent five years painting rich peoples’ houses and blowing the cash on tripods and workshops. . . . I had an idea for an experiment about how people interact online. I needed a film clip to upload so I could test my hypothesis. I’d already sold Spiders on Drugs [a fake Environment-Canada, live-action clip about experiments on spiders introduced to cannabis and crack] to Comedy Central, but figured I could run my experiment and then take the clip down again before the network noticed. The experiment was a success. To celebrate I inhaled a fatty, surfed the net, forgot about the clip, crashed, and woke up on the front page of the Internet. Since that hairpin left, Spiders has garnered a hundred million views . . . . If I hadn’t smoked that joint, I’d still be painting houses.”
Get it? No romantic, De Quincean rhapsodies here about paroxysms of sustained power while under the influence. No Wordsworthian splendour in the grass (admittedly, not Struthers’ kind of grass). Not even any Coleridgean claims that he imbibed drugs because he was not a well man and in no way because things like “Kubla Khan” “Christobel,” and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” kept popping into his mind. Struthers smokes because he enjoys being high. Sometimes it precipitates his art, sometimes hinders it.
I don’t think marijuana had any particular effect on this book but, one way or the other, Struthers’ idea of writing a comic essay about one of his passions was a brilliant one.
John Harris, Prince George, August 19, 2017 3,338 words