Right Smack at You

Melvin Burgess. Smack. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996.

Courtesy of Google Images
Courtesy of Google Images

"I'd tried to give up about half a dozen times, but I'd never been scared before. I mean, you've gotta take risks, we'd all been scared about ODing, or about getting stuck forever on junk, or about buggering up our veins, that sort of stuff. But that's just normal. This time was different, and I knew I really was a junkie this time because, what's a junkie scared of? Not AIDS, not overdosing, like you might think. We were scared because there might be no more smack at the other end. It was the first time I'd felt like that. It was the first time I knew I couldn't get by without it." (226) -Gemma

Smack is centered around teen protagonists Gemma and Tar and their evolution into heroin addiction in the mid-1980s in Bristol, UK. Gemma is the classic case of a young adolescent rebelling against her "horrible" parents. Only, she takes it farther than your average angsty fourteen year old. She runs away from home to live in squats with Tar, who is running away from alcoholic, abusive parents. Their lives spiral into a whirlwind of full-blown addiction that includes: theft, sex, prostitution, death, and the constant need for a fix. The story follows the couple for several years and presents their lifestyle in a non-judgmental light. However, it is not a glamorized account of addiction and shows how gruesome being a slave to heroin can be:

"... jacking up when she was breast feeding. I've seen her. All the veins in her arms and behind her knees have gone where she's poked around with the needle so much, so she injects into the veins between her breasts. I've seen her sitting with the baby on the breast poking about to find a vein." (217 - Tar discussing Lily).

Tar and Gemma eventually become parents themselves at age eighteen, which serves as a wake-up call for Gemma. She reunites with her parents and gets clean while she's still pregnant. Tar fares worse, and although he attempts to stay off heroin, he occasionally slips back into his old habits. Once Gemma is no longer controlled by her heroin addiction, she sees that Tar is not good for her and they split up.

Burgess uniquely narrates the novel from the point of view of a plethora of characters, both main and supporting, giving it perspective from all angles. This technique allows the reader a more personal, thought-provoking insight into each character. There are some unsavory characters who become more likable, or at least sympathetic, when seen through the lens of their own thoughts. On the other hand, there are some characters who seem altruistic who are revealed to be of questionable character - the tobacoonist Skolly, in particular. By allowing us as readers into the minds of each of the characters, we gain an understanding about what leads them down the paths each chooses to take and how those choices seem to snowball into the mess their lives become.

Burgess isn't making any overarching claims about heroin addiction or professing that it is right or wrong. He is merely giving the adolescent reader a vision of what it may look like, how easy it is to get addicted, and the reality that some users may stay addicted or find different lifestyles.

Recommendations for Teachers
Smack is an example of young adult literature that is a significantly darker than what is usually taught in high school classrooms, but it is because of this that the novel can be a great tool for teachers. First and foremost, Smack utilizes a cast of characters that each share the spotlight throughout the book, and therefore the novel offers teachers a useful example of how to accurately and effectively use perspective switching in writing, and how the true natures of even the "stereotypical" characters can be revealed through this method of writing. Various classroom exercises could be developed to emphasize this aspect of the novel, including workshops focusing on bringing out positive characteristics of the "negative" or "bad" characters, or personal writing assignments based on writing from the perspectives of key characters in the book (this could even be related to a previous novel or group of characters the class has worked with, as a way to tie it in).

In addition to the literary significance, Smack is a great way for teachers to bring up some important topics and educate their students about them. Drug abuse, prostitution, harsh language, and sex all make an appearance in the novel, and Smack is a fine entry point for mature readers into the more adult world of writing. Before teaching the novel, a lesson or two focusing on what the students know about drug abuse might be helpful, and maybe a lesson discussing mature topics would be useful after reading a pivotal chapter. Smack brings to the attention of young readers some pretty tough-to-swallow content, and should be treated as such - much like you'd want to discuss racism alongside To Kill A Mockingbird or the history of the persecution of women with The Crucible.

About Melvin Burgess

Image taken from stammibene.com
Image taken from stammibene.com

Melvin Burgess was born in 1954 in Sussex, England. He was an extremely shy child who mostly kept to himself spending his time day dreaming and playing with imaginary friends. He considered himself a poor student and attended what was a called a Secondary Modern school for kids who didn't pass the entrance exam into the "smart" high school. When he completed high school he landed a job as a journalist for a local newspaper and attended a six month training session. This is where he came to the realization that writing was his passion and he abandoned the journalism opportunity. He then began writing his first novel which never captured the attention of a publisher. For 15 years he worked endless jobs on and off while continuing to work on his writing. A few years later he moved to Bristol where he lived until he was 30. There he found inspiration for his novel Junk and found a meaning for life. At 35 he picked up and moved to London where he decided to really try his hand at writing. He wrote several different types of novels and found some success when his novel The Cry of the Wolf was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. He now resides in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire and lives with his partner Anita.
The information for this Biography was used from Melvin Burgess' homepage

Related Multimedia:

Purchasing Heroin -

Heroin Recovery -

Squatting in the U.K. -

Junk - episode 1 - the preceeding link is a video of the first episode of the TV version of Smack AKA Junk on BBC network.

External Links:

Further Information Regarding the Book and Author:

Information for Teachers:

Heroin Related Topics:

  • JoinTogether.org -website dedicated to advancing effective alcohol and drug policy, prevention, and treatment
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse -information on heroin addiction, health effects, and treatment options
  • Livestrong.com – blog that serves as an offshoot of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, this site contains many details about teenage heroin usage.
  • Teengrowth.com – website dedicated to healthy living amongst teens. This site contains many facts about heroin and its effects
  • Heroin and Rockstars -article about Sid Vicious' overdose on heroin and Red Hott Chili Pepper's lead singer's addiction and "Wake-up" music video

Heroin and Infants:

Squatting Related Topics:

  • Advisory Service for Squatters - UK based website providing legal information about squatting. Authors of the The Squatter Handbook.
  • UK Squatting Archive - a website that is run by its users, users post updates and information about squats around the world. This could serve as a useful tool to explain the legal aspects, or to allude to the popularity of squatting.

--Kyle Deuling, Mariah Price, Kelly Cleypool, Chris Jobin, and Maya Soter