cover image THE LAST OPIUM DEN


Nick Tosches, . . Bloomsbury, $15.95 (74pp) ISBN 978-1-58234-227-6

In classic Tosches (Where Dead Voices Gather) fashion, the author offers an amazing recital of his around-the-world jaunt in search of the world's last opium den. His ostensible purpose is sound: a diabetic, he learns the drug was historically used as a salve for victims of the disease. But his truer, more urgent search is for those elusive, perhaps liminal, "brocade-curtained, velvet-cushioned places of luxurious decadence"—and the smoky, ambrosiac paradise to be experienced there. The result of his investigation is the most comprehensive book on the drug since De Quincy's The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. (Though Tosches does tell readers how to procure a book, not yet available in the West, that he claims handles the same subject matter to a greater, grander degree.) Recounting the drug's millennial history, and somewhat surprised to find that it's scarce nowadays, Tosches, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, shuffles through the streets and overblown neon of Communist Hong Kong, escapes from Cambodian authorities under machine-gun fire, trips through a fellow epicurean's manse and private stash and, finally, wanders into a ratty Indochinese bungalow that contains, perhaps, the world's last opium den. Rich with political and historical digressions, the book also succeeds in pulling back the green curtain on connoisseurship, distinguishing between desire and need via the alternating lenses of discriminating taste and economic demand. Appropriately, once inside this narrative, readers will never notice how quickly the time has passed. Originally an article in Vanity Fair (where it purportedly received the biggest reader response of editor-in-chief Graydon Carter's tenure), the book's brevity will leave readers itching for another hit of Tosches's finely turned prose. (Jan.)