A review of Horse Latitudes by Richard English
Horse Latitudes portrays Chris Wilson’s descent into drug use, criminality, prostitution and prison. For the most part, the narratorial setting is the Mission district in San Francisco with flashbacks to Los Angeles, Dar Es Salaam and other places pertinent to his past. Chris’s narcotic Odyssey is hard hitting, brain splitting and bowel moving. At least those are some of the effects that it had on me. He depicts a wasteland of heroin horror through a combination of drugalogue and gobsmacking anecdotes about murder, prostitution, the extreme characters that inhabit the Mission, and his experiences of incarceration that extend from county jail to the San Quentin psychiatric isolation ward.
Is it a book? Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
Horse Latitudes is a graphic memoir of 118 pages and a postscript, which mixes text with 4 sections of 4 coloured plates of Chris’s paintings, and contains references to various photographs.
Why the title?
Chris was impressed by Jean Rhys’s, Wild Sargasso Sea, in which the term ‘horse latitudes’ with a nautical connotation, appears. By this term, Chris means “a place where you are voluntarily abandoned”. There is a pun on the word ‘horse’, which refers to heroin in junkie argot.
Photographs and Paintings
On pages 15, 16, 34, 38, 114, reference is made to photographs such as that on p.15 with the title, “Night, a cheap motel room, the United States”. An outline of the composition follows: “A young Filipino drug dealer preparing to go to work in front of a full length mirror, he is combing his hair straight back, around his bare chest is a shoulder holster and a pistol … “. Feverishly, I flipped through the tome looking for this snap and couldn’t find it. Perplexed I thumbed through the plates to see if it was there. Mucho disappointment.
It was a trick, and I fell for it. According to Chris, the photos are “re-creations, in memory, of scenes that I wished I could have photographed at the time of their happening”. Chris assumes the right to artistic ownership of physically non-existent records of his past. And why not? They are “emotional templates” that help to interrogate his life in retrospect.
Chris is an artist, who, in recovery, has trained and distinguished himself at Chelsea College, London. His book contains plates of 16 of his paintings, for example, St Genet. This portrait shows the tattooed torso of an imagined Jean Genet with his face white as a ghost’s, a tear running from his right eye. The theme is sanctification through suffering, more generally, dignity through indignity. In Chris’s case, drug use and citizenship of the underworld lead to his messianic penance. Other paintings are entitled Midnight Rambler, Pop Gun Robbery, PCP and so on. Chris is a talented fellow. His artwork knocks your teeth out, but he mops up your blood with a tender wipe, just like his writing.
The Tenderloin and the Mission
The Tenderloin and the Mission are neighbouring districts in San Francisco where Chris spent most of the 1980’s. While the Mission has undergone regeneration and is now noted for its plethora of ethnic restaurants to which tourists flock, the Tenderloin has remained intractable. As an habitué, Chris writes: “… in the Tenderloin you can smell the HIV and despair in the piss that fills the street, old drunk Indians with cirrhotic livers bump into various stages of surgically-altered transvestites out catching tricks on the corners and skeleton speed couples zigzag their way to the liquor store trying to stay out of the sun” (p.63).
What fascinated and fascinates Chris about these districts is that they offer an alternative or ‘other’ community. They provide “somewhere to land for those who have fallen through the cracks of ordinary society”. They service an underworld where neighbouring blocks specialize in the trading of heroin, crack, syringes, and prostitutes, the daily diet of its denizens.
Chris’s hero is Jean Genet, the gay criminal who wrote about the low life in such a way as to hagiographise the characters involved. Chris shares this attribute, which raises Horse Latitudes above the drunkalogues, drugalogues, and prisonalogues that typify addiction writing. Genet’s influence on Chris takes the form of the glorification via realism of the low life. Not by pathos, although sympathy is created, but by the spectacle of human suffering through the lens of compassion.
As Genet says: “Few are the moments when I escape from horror, few the moments when I do not have a vision, or some horrifying perception of human beings and events.” There is plenty of horror in Chris’s text. The scenes that it inhabits range from when Chris turns his first trick as a rent boy in the car park of a MacDonalds and receives 2 cheeseburgers and $20, through grisly descriptions of street life in the Mission and the Tenderloin, to a graphic fixing scene in a hostel for the homeless.
Chris first identifies with Genet while in county jail in San Francisco, and views him as “a beautiful, fellow spirit”. They are both unapologetic and embrace the underworld with no regrets. They scorn conformity, but achieve happiness within their own arcane worldviews. Chris regards Genet as inspirational to his writing, as the latter possesses “a beautiful, feminine heart”.
The Nietzsche of Narcotics
To my mind, Chris is the Nietzsche of narcotics, someone espousing a shocking and counter-intuitive thesis to generally accepted norms. He is an iconoclastic negativist and contradicts much of the canon of drug memoir. He eschews petit bourgeois morality or “pettiness” as he calls it, using crime and punishment (echoes of Dostoevsky here) as a tool of learning. Chris writes, “I want to tell you how heroin saved my life, how my ability for self destruction has made of me a superior being apart and above the common run of man … I am … hovering near the ceiling like a spirit at the demise of the body in which it formerly dwelt, free to bask in the unfolding separation of eternity” (p.13).
In a way, Chris ascribes a version of Nietzsche’s transvaluation to the moral agency of the addict who returns from the life of junk to the ordinary world. Such an (anti-) hero is twice born, the recipient of enlightenment.
Instead of prison being an evil, it is a good, a locus of overcoming that transforms Chris into an Ubermensch. The result is a post-apocalyptic and human, far too human, being. Whereas the typical addict memoir describes in sensationalist detail the violence of sociopathic guards, rapes in the shower, and blades in the gut, Chris writes that prison gives him a chance to detoxify both physically and spiritually. He achieves bodily recovery as well as acquiring a sense of his own presence. A new reality creeps in. “I realized I’d got qualities I wasn’t aware of before”. “Now I knew how to provide for myself.”
Horse Latitudes adumbrates with compassion the process by which an individual, who is taken away from the ordinary world, but not destroyed by this removal, can acquire the gift of seeing the ordinary world from a special and lucid perspective on his return. The result is a leap from the wasteland to the desire for, and achievement of, grace and integrity.
 Quotes from Chris qua himself, as opposed to his role as an author, were obtained during an interview with him on 18th December 2013.
 p.3 JP Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr 2012, (Minnesota Press, USA; first published 1952)
Richard English is the recipient of awards from Arts Council England (Literature) and the British Academy. His publications include Sunrise with Sea Monsters (Canonbury, 2012), Coping Successfully with Hepatitis C (Constable-Robinson, 2000), Living with Hepatitis C (Robinson, 1997), several short stories, and numerous rock reviews for Rocks Backpages. He is currently engaged in research into Addiction and the Heroin Novel at Brunel University, where he teaches.