On the shelf
By Ruth Madievsky
Catapult: 304 pages, $27
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Ruth Madievsky doesn’t seem to have a high risk tolerance.
Sitting at her dining table in her tidy Santa Monica apartment, the author exudes composure as she discusses balancing her job as a clinical pharmacist with her writing career while her three-month-old takes a nap in the next room.
One would never guess that the characters in her debut novel “Pharmacy open all night‘, weave a trail through the LA bar scene under a haze of benzos, opioids and psychedelics, risk death or humiliation at every step.
“Whenever I’m asked if the drug use is fictitious,” Madievsky tells me, “I always reply, ‘It’s fictitious!’ So fictional!’”
Madievsky She draws on her knowledge of pharmaceuticals to paint a realistic picture of what it’s like when life goes off the rails due to destructive drug use. In her intimate tale about two sisters, the unnamed protagonist is alternately coerced and repelled by the toxic narcissism of her older sister Debbie, a feral kid who works at a strip club and is “so alive it was scary.”
Under Debbie’s influence, the younger sister embarks on an odyssey of questionable decisions – from getting housing with a man she meets at a bar to devising a plan to sell counterfeit pills from the clinic where she works .
The sisters drive home a club called Salvation, housed in a former Christian bookstore. Her favorite pastime is getting strangers to play a game called “Wealthy Patron,” in which participants confess how much money they would accept in exchange for degenerate behavior. As the novel progresses, the deeds become dirtier and the price cheaper.
Though “Pharmacy” bursts with the energy of Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Requiem for a Dream” or Patrick deWitt’s “Ablutions,” Madievsky’s knowledge of drug science is purely professional. She wants to let you know that she has no experience dealing with Class A drugs and that she has a few other misconceptions to clear up about her job: you doesn’t count pills, nor does it work in a CVS. She works in a clinic with patients she sees regularly. Her areas of specialization are HIV and primary care.
“It’s very rewarding,” says Madievsky, “because I’m helping to make people’s lives better, and it’s also really nice for my writing because when I have one.” [crap] At least on the day of writing I know I’ve done something good in the world.”
She fears that colleagues might misunderstand her writing. (Madievsky has also published a collection of poems called “Emergency Brake.”) Or, more specifically, she worries that regulators at the California State Board of Pharmacy might mix up her characters’ preferences with her own lifestyle choices.
That’s partly because of the fiction’s high level of veracity — from the dives and run-down LA apartments to the predictable patterns of addiction. “I really didn’t want to write about something that I haven’t personally experienced or people I’ve been in a community with who haven’t experienced it,” says Madievsky, “because I feel like it’s so easy to do harm if you I’m just trying to figure out what kind [marginalizing] Experience is like.”
But the novel is more than an LA drug story. The relationship between the two sisters is just one of the book’s many storylines, which also includes the narrator’s difficult handling of her mother, who is experiencing a series of mental crises related to the horrors her parents are experiencing in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova have. The novel also explores the eroticism of the narrator’s first same-sex relationship. And it takes a darker turn when Debbie disappears.
“It’s a crime novel. It’s an immigration novel. It’s a queer coming-of-age novel. It’s a sister novel. It’s like going to a pharmacy,” says Madievsky. “You have everything.”
Hence the title suggested by a friend. It was originally called “Prescriptions,” “which I thought was so clever,” says Madievsky, “because it has a double meaning.” It’s both a drug and an advice, and the narrator is constantly in search of advice, as is he can be human.”
Despite the diversity, “All-Night Pharmacy” is no shaggy dog story. It pulses with intensity as its characters struggle to find their way. The taut narrative is supported by Madievsky’s razor-sharp prose, which takes her back to her poetic background.
“I bled over every word, every description,” says Madievsky, “because I feel that in writing poetry, the pursuit of beauty trumps all else.” You can abandon any form, any narrative, to find something that feels true even as it destroys everything that came before.”
There are passages in “Emergency Brake” that anticipate the novel. In the poem “Halloween,” the narrator survives a night at a bar with her boss while her mind wanders to benzos like the psychic Molly Bloom:
“…all my life I’ve been about as carefree as a soft peach / in a pile of broken glass, my hand / ever twitching towards the Ativan bottle.”
Despite her achievements in poetry and prose, Madievsky has had little formal training as a writer. After her bachelor’s degree, she enrolled in USC’s four-year PharmD program, followed by a year of residency.
“I knew I was going to be a pharmacist from the age of eight or nine, just like my mother,” explains Madievsky.
Her parents came to Los Angeles from Moldova as Jewish political refugees when Madievsky was two years old. She lived with her parents, her grandparents and her great-grandmother, whose husband was murdered by the KGB, in an apartment near Fairfax and Santa Monica (“in the Russian diaspora district”). Madievsky recalls growing up in a neighborhood where shop signs were in Russian and English and old men played chess in the park.
“At one point I wanted to be a writer rather than a pharmacist,” Madievsky admits, but her parents insisted that she get a pharmacy degree in case they had to move and start over somewhere else. “You have to have a backup!” they told her.
There’s something autobiographical about All-Night Pharmacy in that regard. The protagonist, her sister, and her mother all wrestle with the knowledge that their ancestors endured unimaginable suffering in order for them to prosper in the United States. When the sisters fail to make the most of their chances, this incalculable debt is caught in a stranglehold.
“I was interested in the way historical trauma affects people several generations away,” Madievsky says, “and maybe didn’t even know they were responding to that trauma in any way.”
Rather than engage with her characters’ self-destructive behavior, Madievsky has learned to channel her ancestors’ experiences as both a healer and a storyteller. Towards the middle of the novel, the protagonist embarks on a journey to Moldova, which is reminiscent of the author’s journey to her home country.
“I have mixed feelings about using them in novels,” Madievsky says of her family’s stories, “but my overriding feeling is that I want to remember them in some way, especially because the stories each time , when I hear them, are a little different.” There’s a lot of “oh everyone who remembers is dead,” so there’s nobody to ask. I felt a responsibility to keep those stories alive.”
Ruland’s latest novel is Make It Stop.