Liz Moore took a fragment from Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters for the title of her exploration of family, geography and addiction, Long Bright River. The poet’s brother Charles was an opium user. “It’s a strange coincidence,” Moore says – but evidently fitting. Long Bright River, an emotional study of family dysfunction composed with the stylistic economy of a crime novel, was published last week to rave reviews. It takes place in the Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington, notorious as a virtual city-state of opioid addiction.
It’s here, in a once prosperous residential area fallen into dilapidation and dotted with abandoned buildings that Moore traces the story of two sisters, Michaela and Kacey Fitzpatrick, who are estranged but find themselves bonded by their choices – or lack of them. Michaela, or Mickey, is a cop and single mother whose concern for her younger sister becomes an obsession; Kacey is tightly locked in heroin addiction, and working the streets, so her preoccupations are, on the surface, elsewhere. Amid the daily toll of overdoses in the area, a series of murders raises the emotional stakes for Mickey and decreases the chances of survival for Kacey, who has disappeared.
“I was interested in playing with who is on the right side of the law and who is on the right side of morality, and switching those back and forth several times,” says Moore, who has lived in Philadelphia for a decade. We’re sitting in New York’s Penn station and, despite being just six blocks from the tourist theme park of Times Square, it’s a virtual distillation of Kensington. We’re steps from a methadone clinic; high-priced addiction coaches; the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation; and Eighth Avenue’s grim addiction centrepiece: the so-called “Zombie McDonald’s”, a notorious 24-hour branch of the burger chain where addicts go to look for a fix or to nod off.
Such circumstances are not always as black-and-white as they may appear, Moore points out: “There are many interpretations of people with addictions and police officers; both groups, one could argue, constantly on the right and wrong side of morality.”
Moore’s observations are informed and compassionate, and Long Bright River arrives at an opportune moment. From Frozen to Little Women, Big Little Lies to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Hannah Rothschild’s House of Trelawney and Fleabag, the relationships between sisters are enjoying audiences and acclaim.
“Maybe for a long time women silently supported one another and offered a lot of emotional support in a way that seems constantly misunderstood,” Moore says. “When sisterly bonds were portrayed in films and books, there was a lot of rivalry and backstabbing. In reality, some of my most important support comes from women and that’s what I’m interested in writing about.”
Moore, whose previous books include The Unseen World, The Words of Every Song and Heft, was raised with a sister who was seven years younger. “As a kid, I felt like another parent and that part of my autobiography found its way into this book,” she says. Despite her own family’s experience of addiction – one she is keen to protect – parallels with Mickey and Kacey end there. Her family’s problem eventually reached 12-step recovery, but she says: “It made a big impression on me to know early what addiction was.” Moore believes exposure to addiction can send people in different directions. “That’s sort of what the sisters represent: either you mimic what you’ve seen, or has been discussed, or you are frightened of dabbling in anything.”
For years, Kensington’s community of addicts have lived in a disused Conrail viaduct or under two nearby bridges, one on Emerald Street known, per The Wizard of Oz, as Emerald City. “I met every type of person, with every type of background. Many had had very successful middle-class careers and had been living everyday lives,” says Moore. She taught a creative writing workshop in a nearby women’s shelter. “It was open to anybody. Certainly many of the clients had addiction issues but to be honest, people in the depths of an addiction don’t have time for that. Many were in recovery, or a moment of recovery, and trying to sort something out.”
She also observed the routines: the people who are addicts, somnolent or agitated on the streets; dealers and their guides; sex workers and their clients; social workers and paramedics patrolling for overdoses with nasal shots of naloxone; church halls with round-the-clock Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She also saw the horrific human cost. In 2017, 1,200 people overdosed and died in the county, a toll that dropped slightly in 2018 but still averaged three deaths a day, or triple the city’s homicide rate.
Fatalities among visiting suburban kids prompted the city to clean out the communities, residents argued, with some even complaining that Kensington’s gentrification, not the health and wellbeing of the community, was the priority for the authorities. City officials then floated plans for a clinic were people could inject drugs under medical supervision, a move that was opposed by the Trump administration, which cited a 1980s-era law known as “the crackhouse statute”. Charity Project Home called for people with addiction to be offered housing without drug testing. “You need shelter before you can figure out anything else in your life,” Moore says. “Give people a place to live and maybe they’ll be able to breath for long enough to get into sobriety.”
Still, she understands the resistance to the city’s efforts to rehabilitate, whatever the intention: “One of things that makes it difficult to get in recovery is the sense of friendship and family that exists in any community where people use together.”
One of loveliest things about Long Bright River is that it’s not a literary glorification of addiction – itself a well-worn path for writers from William Burroughs to Hubert Selby Jr. “There have been different moments surrounding heroin addiction, one beginning with beatniks, and the 1980s new wave’ post-punks, that associated it with creative or artistic talent. This is a very different moment, maybe because opioid addiction in this moment in the US began with pain medication for bodily injury,” she says. “People didn’t necessarily opt in the same way, or there was no choice, because people didn’t understand in the mid-90s how addictive the medication was, and it was being actively foisted on them as non-addictive. So it feels quite different.”
Philadelphia is emerging as a city with an overlooked literary identity. Moore mentions her friend, Kiley Reid, who has just published her debut Such a Fun Age to good reviews, and the acclaimed Carmen Maria Machado, among others. “Philadelphia certainly is having a literary moment, but Philadelphians don’t like the explanation that the renaissance is at New York’s expense. It has its own rich, cool literary traditions.”
With the completion of the book, Moore placed herself, she says, on hiatus from anything to do with addiction. “I’d been in that world for so long, I was beginning to find it emotionally difficult,” she says. Eventually, she picked up Dopesick, a powerful account of the pharmaceutical industry’s role in the opioid crisis. “Diabolical,” Moore says. “But I wouldn’t say shocking because I’m not shocked by what a corporation is willing to do to make a profit. But it was saddening.”
• Long Bright River by Liz Moore is published by Hutchinson in the UK.