It’s been noted that an inherent menace of recreational cannabis use (referred to in this book solely as ‘smoke’) is—far less than with drugs of a higher grading—exactly our negligence of it having menacing qualities at all. What paradoxically makes it so threatening is its very ubiquity in society, our general flippancy towards its distribution and intake. Coupled with this is a disregard for the potential repercussions of handling it: legal, illegal, psychological—all of which Peter Benson masterfully intertwines in this novel, and none of which Spike, the dim-witted but duplicitous best friend of our narrator, pays heed to as he sets about stealing a vanful of the stuff from a hoop house hidden in the trees by the sleepy village of Ashbrittle.
The events are recounted by Elliot—a twenty-one year old Huck Finn, transplanted to the rolling hills of Somerset and the sweltering heat wave of 1976. Benson’s evocation of landscape is wonderfully droll: ‘the summer had been like a badger caught in a tarred barrel, fed on chilli and forced to listen to chanting monks’. Such heat is employed to make the ground buzz and sing, viscerally eliciting our associations with the country—a place where the lanes ‘echo to their own whispers’.
Elliot equally takes after a stoic, earnest handyman father and a prophetic mother, who quickly gets premonitions about his embroilment with the theft of smoke (‘I’m smelling fire all the time… I need you to stop whatever it is you’re doing’). Despite Elliot’s disinterest in the plant, he rapidly gets in deep, finding a hanged body in the woods and opting to hide the ‘vanful’ to protect Spike from being next on the hit list. Things get more complicated as we realise the man seeking revenge and the retrieval of his green is a corrupt cop.
Where Spike is ‘the bloke who never quite gets it’, Elliot ‘thinks before he does anything’. Spike underestimates the mental and sociological implications of taking the smoke—it takes his house getting literally blazed by the bent cop to ignite his paranoia —but Elliot is brimming with reverence for the pure green of his surroundings, reflecting ‘I’ve never believed in gods, never thought that anything could have a greater power than a wood or a field’. His observations are the giggle-making ineffability of being high, but made articulate and thereby inversely poignant: the smell of sawn wood is ‘a good listener, someone with kind eyes, a smile and a glass of lemonade’, the sun ‘a head of fire’, the fear generated when he sets out on the foreboding task of herding in two escaped cows in the dead of night being ‘something that crept in like a spider might creep into a bed, slowly and carefully… legs feeling and twitching at the air’.
A coming-of-age story wouldn’t be complete without a love interest, and just as Elliot offers us a sober but equally heady alternative to Spike’s very real white-out, his romantic pursuit of a village hippie, Sam, works similarly against expectation. Where Spike meets women and bores himself within one or two weekends, Elliot and Sam become involved at a steady pace, and the majority takes place while the girl is unconscious (she falls into a coma after a literal run-in with the bent copper). Adding this to Elliot’s delightful way of digesting the world around him—both animate and inanimate, askew and afresh—makes for an intoxicating read: a high we can both indulge in and respect, hugely.