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True confessions

Stephen Elliott recounts a bizarre murder trial, with detours through his own abused, troubled past

Author Stephen Elliott combines his reportage with cultural criticism and personal insights. Author Stephen Elliott combines his reportage with cultural criticism and personal insights. (Katherine Emery)
By Steve Almond
Globe Correspondent / August 30, 2009

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“My father may have killed a man.’’

So opens Stephen Elliott’s riveting new book, “The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder.’’ It’s the sort of line in which Elliott specializes: nakedly manipulative and all but impossible to resist. In fact, the sentence has now sucked me in twice, because the moment I revisited “The Adderall Diaries’’ (intending only to select quotes for this review) I immediately started reading the book again.

Elliott’s career as a writer of fiction and nonfiction has been built on a strain of compulsive confession whose aim is not to titillate but to plumb the dark mysteries of the self. This new book, which combines reportage, along with a healthy dose of cultural criticism, is his most ambitious to date.

It is also, by a wide margin, the hardest to summarize. The narrative’s two central strands are an account of the trial of Hans Reiser, a San Francisco computer programmer accused of murdering his estranged wife Nina, and Elliott’s speculations about his own estranged father, who claims to have killed a man to avenge a beating he suffered the year before his son was born.

But Elliott invariably goes where his busy mind takes him. And thus we get excursions into the troubled terrain of his boyhood, his addiction to the drug Adderall, his romantic travails, his writer’s block, and several disturbing encounters with Shawn Sturgeon, a former friend of Reiser’s, who bizarrely has confessed to a series of unrelated murders.

Fortunately, Elliott is an instinctual and associative writer. He is able to draw connections between seemingly disparate events. At one point, for instance, he describes a boxing match he attends between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya, who was trained for the fight by Mayweather’s father. “I know everything there is to know about fathers who root against their sons,’’ he notes.

This is how it works with Elliott. His digressions inevitably lead him back to ancient preoccupations. Sturgeon fascinates him initially because they seem to have so much in common. Like Elliott, Sturgeon claims to have been abused as a child, and later becomes part of San Francisco’s underground S&M scene. But Sturgeon’s reaction to his alleged abuse is to insist that he murdered those who victimized him.

“How could he feel remorse but not guilt? What does ‘loss’ mean?’’ the author wonders. “It’s not that his pain isn’t real, just unknowable. It belongs to him, exists in the complex forge of his heart.’’ Elliott might as well be writing here about his own father, whose boasts of homicide, like Sturgeon’s, come to seem like a desperate bid for attention.

Although “The Adderall Diaries’’ is being marketed as a true crime book, it is not the sort that serves up its felonies in a lurid gravy of gore. When he chooses to focus on the Reiser trail, Elliott writes with a grace and precision that calls to mind Truman Capote’s landmark work, “In Cold Blood.’’ He, too, is fascinated by questions of motive, how our capacity to love is disfigured into evil, and our tangled mechanisms of denial. But the prime suspect in this book is not the murderer. It’s the author.

Elliott has built a cult following specifically by writing about his past in a manner both beautiful and wrenching. Here he is describing a teenage hitchhiking expedition gone wrong: “Men stood in open trailers on piles of carpets, the air wavy with gasoline and radio bustle. They hoisted barbells next to their trucks and blew smoke from the windows. Nearby we found skid row where the homeless slept against the buildings or lined up for the soup kitchen. There was vomit all over the sidewalks. The women looked as through they would snap if you touched them. The buildings were boarded and abandoned or had sheets of metal pulled down their fronts. It was like a glimpse of our future.’’

His insights into the substance abuse of his youth are equally bracing. “Drugs didn’t make us loveable,’’ he observes, “they made us capable of love, gave us the ability to forgive, which had eluded us previously.’’

Those readers who find solipsism in such sustained personal disclosure will surely loathe “The Adderall Diaries.’’ Even as a long-time fan of Elliott’s writing, I found patches that read too much like a catalogue of exotic miseries.

But the book’s most affecting passages are unlike anything being written today. They manage to fuse the radical subjectivity of the individual struggling to understand himself with a tender bafflement at the psychological evasions of modern life in America. Toward the end of the book, Elliott draws a direct link between the murder trial he’s become obsessed with, his own history, and the military abuses that flourished during the Bush presidency. All of them bear the imprint of that peculiarly American impulse for revenge. We respond to rejection, he contends, “with the violent indignation of colonizers. We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.’’

Elliott would be the first to admit that he’s done the same thing with his new book, though his intent is not to lash out or lay blame, but to locate within his addled consciousness that rarest of human artifacts: forgiveness.

Steve Almond’s new book, “Bang Your Heart,’’ is due out in May.

THE ADDERALL DIARIES: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder
By Stephen Elliott
Graywolf, 208 pp., illustrated, $23

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