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Review: In Nicotine, Gregor Hens reflects on a life with cigarettes

Title
Nicotine
Author
Gregor Hens, translated by Jen Calleja
Genre
Memoir
Publisher
Other Press
Pages
208
Price
$22.99

"Smoking I once quit/ Now I got one lit/ I just fell back into it." This simple lyric from songwriter Nick Lowe's wryly confessional Lately I've Let Things Slide isn't the most profound observation I've encountered during a lifetime of struggling with – but mostly succumbing to – the sneakily seductive allure of cigarettes. But I've yet to come across a tidier summary of my own addiction.

After puffing my way through late adolescence – and especially fiercely through university and my first years as a journalist, when smoking in newsrooms was not only permitted but practically de rigueur – I have stopped and started too many times to count. I once went for two entire years without firing up a single cigarette. I don't remember why I quit. Probably the sensible litany of health-related reasons. I don't even recall often wrestling with the urge to resume.

I can, however, vividly recollect the occasion of falling back into it: It was a late-afternoon birthday gathering for a newsroom colleague demanding a third or fourth celebratory glass of wine, and suddenly, there I was, bumming smokes (yes, plural) off a fellow writer in the restaurant parking lot. I wasn't starting up again, I confidently assured myself. No, no, no. Hadn't I decisively tested my mettle during the intervening two years of abstinence? Cough.

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In his short, perceptive and thoroughly absorbing memoir, Nicotine, German author and Ohio State University linguistics professor Gregor Hens differentiates between the putative "last cigarette," the one butted out on New Year's Eve or other such occasion of swearing off for good and the "relapse cigarette," the first one inhaled after a period of going without. And there's no question which of the two has afforded him greater pleasure.

The New Year's vow to quit smoking remains alive and well – cracking 2017's top 10 resolutions according to a recent poll – even as the use of tobacco continues to decline dramatically, at least in many Western countries, where smoking has become about as socially acceptable as spitting on the sidewalk. It is also, not surprisingly, considered the hardest resolution to keep. Three out of five smokers who quit at the start of the year will be smoking again before the end of January, according to fresh data from Britain's Royal Society of Public Health, and a scant 13 per cent will make it to the end of the year without backsliding. These tendencies will hardly surprise Hens, who writes unabashedly about how much pleasure he has derived over the years from renewing the acquaintance.

Hens, about 50 at the time he quit, fondly summons his first, youthful relapse in characteristically luxuriant detail. After a two-week cessation due to insufficient funds, he recharges his dopamine level while sitting alone on the hood of his late mother's Range Rover and pausing to take in the scenery of a countryside quarry. "I closed my eyes and felt the nicotine shoot through my veins after the long abstinence, it crackled in my brain like a thousand tiny explosions. I felt this magnificent firework, the titillation in my nerves, the rush of my first fall-back cigarette!"

The memory of this experience, and too many others like it, prevents the author from regarding his present, smoke-free circumstances complacently. In his experience, the last cigarette is more often prologue than epilogue. "Since this day at the quarry, I've always smoked the last cigarette because I could already sense that a new first one was awaiting me at some point in the future, a relapse cigarette that would surpass all other cigarettes and trigger a giddy clarity within me that had up to that point been waiting in the shadows."

Passages such as this leave little doubt that Hens's purpose in writing the memoir wasn't to crow about his own deliverance from nicotine or to hector recidivists, one of whom, the novelist Will Self, has furnished Nicotine with a suitably knowing introduction. Not only is this not a self-help book, it doesn't appear to have helped Self, at least not to the point where he was sufficiently inspired to follow Hens's example.

Hens leavens his anecdotal recollections with appreciable humour. This review will allow readers the immense pleasure of discovering for themselves the foundational story of how Hens actually tasted his first cigarette at the age of 6. Suffice it to say that both of his parents were heavy imbibers who billowed like coal stacks in the presence of their offspring, including on long road trips with the car windows sealed shut. There is also a hilarious section involving a Columbus, Ohio, psychologist/hypnotist, who advises Hens not to beat himself up if he surrenders to the urge and has a cigarette or two. "What's he thinking?" an incredulous Hens wonders. "Doesn't he realize that there can only be one possibility: for me to believe that I'll never, never ever again even touch a cigarette?"

The narrative, colloquially translated from German by Jen Calleja, is enlivened by cultural references. Particular heed is paid to Smoke and Blue in the Face, a pair of related films written by novelist Paul Auster and set in a Brooklyn tobacco shop. Hens is especially fond of the scene in which a client, played by Jim Jarmusch, tells the tobacconist (Harvey Keitel) that he'll have to foreswear sex now that he's about to smoke his last cigarette because he can't fathom not lighting up after intercourse. We also learn, perhaps disappointingly, that Mark Twain never made the remark famously attributed to him about his personal ease with quitting smoking based on the number of times he'd done it.

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But readers shouldn't expect a rigorous investigation into the cultural, botanical, medical or legislative history of tobacco. Mostly, the author sticks to documenting his own experiences with cigarettes, as well as his comparatively brief time without. In the process, he revels in language, identifying "tobacco chippers" as enviable smokers who can make do with one or two cigarettes a day, and coining "fumotopes" to describe the gaggles of smokers huddled on sidewalks outside workplaces and bars.

Hens, eight months clean and counting when he started the book, circumvented the freighted, last-cigarette drama by not deciding to quit until hours after he'd smoked it. Quitting by afterthought, rather than forethought, is the closest he comes to offering advice. His purpose in writing Nicotine was twofold: to make the act of quitting stick by fixing it on the page, and to share some universal truths on the subject of smoking and, more broadly, addiction. On the first objective, the jury necessarily remains out. In the case of the second, there isn't the slightest whiff of doubt. Prepare to be hooked from the first sentence.

Vit Wagner is a Toronto writer and teacher.

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