Summary: A gang of junkies roams the Pacific northwest, robbing pharmacies for their next high. In this gritty novel, real-life drugstore cowboy James Fogle describes this desperate, occasionally-thrilling lifestyle. The novel is short and compelling and reveals a world that most of us never even knew existed. For those who like to read about “the street life,” Drugstore Cowboy is a winner.
Review: Director Gus Van Sant found an unpublished novel by James Fogle (1936-2012) and turned it into the excellent movie Drugstore Cowboy. The film is terrific; it repositioned Matt Dillon as a serious actor, rather than a teen heartthrob and launched Van Sant’s career as a director. For Fogle, the film and novel for Cowboy were both triumphs. But unlike Dillon and Van Sant, he did not move on to bigger and better things. Cowboy remains his only published novel and his life after the book and film was seedy and dissolute.
What remains of Fogle is one excellent novel. Reportedly, Fogle wrote Drugstore Cowboy in just six weeks while sitting in prison for robbing a pharmacy in Cowlitz County, Washington. Indeed, one of the most-interesting things about Drugstore Cowboy is that Fogle lived the life that he depicts in the books. Readers who want to know more about Fogle can start with the ending – his online obituaries:
The book concerns four “drugstore cowboys,” drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habits. The leader of the gang, Bob, is loosely based on Fogle. Bob and his gang travel around the Pacific northwest trying to stay one step ahead of the law while also finding new, unsuspecting caches of drugs to swipe.
Fogle tries to strike explain the junkie’s viewpoint in a realistic way. Drugstore’s junkies live for their drugs and the surefire good feelings that they provide. Also, they despise society for making their vice illegal and – in the junkies’ view – forcing them onto a wicked path leading to death or prison. At the same time, Fogle shows that junkies are often pathetic; for instance, Bob is obsessed with his superstitions (don’t EVER leave a hat on the bed) and is impotent due to his massive drug use. Fogle clearly knew the many highs (pun intended) and lows of the junkie life.
Though I am a big fan of Drugstore Cowboy, the book has a few “holes.” Potential readers should be aware that Fogle tells the story from his perspective – that of the recidivist junkie. As a result, the police in Cowboy often come off as stupid, corrupt brutes rather than full-fledged characters. Similarly, while Bob definitely is flawed, at times he seems to be a bit too smart; for instance, at one point, he plays a complicated trick on the police that is somewhat unbelievable.
Some readers might also note that the plot of the book is a little thin. However, one could argue that – aside from robbing and getting high – Fogle should not have his characters do much because it would be an unrealistic depiction of the junkie lifestyle. Readers can best appreciate Cowboy as a slice of a very-different kind of life.
According to Fogle’s obituaries, he wrote many other novels that have yet to be published. Perhaps some of those novels will eventually see the light of day. In the mean time, Drugstore Cowboy is a terrific, brutal novel that shows readers a world that they will find interesting to visit – so long as they don’t have to live there.