“He’s a drug addict, Davey. He’s been addicted to cocaine almost your entire life.” Dave Itzkoff, now a reporter on the culture desk of the New York Times, was only 8 years old when his mother dropped that life-altering bombshell about his dad.
Tough news for a kid to comprehend, but it did explain a lot about his father Gerry’s erratic behavior and strange hours. In his memoir, Cocaine’s Son (Villard, 2011), Itzkoff chronicles the pain caused by his father’s lust for cocaine, and the difficult therapy that he and his dad went through to rebuild their relationship. It’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also about fathers and sons, drug addiction, forgiveness and, ultimately, the strength of family. Itzkoff recently spoke with Kirkus about the evolution of the book, including its title, and, of course, his family.
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Cocaine’s Son is an intriguing and provocative title. How did you select it?
The New York magazine essay (July 2005) that spawned this book was titled “Cocaine’s Kid.” That lingered with us, and we knew some variation of it would be in the running when it came time to title the book. If you invoke drugs directly in the title the reader is going to presume that it’s purely an addiction story or a drug story.
So we tried some oblique approaches. One title we kicked around was The Man of Twists and Turns, which is a reference to The Odyssey. It held favor for maybe a day or a week. And we considered a long lyrical reference: Doesn’t Mean That Much to Me to Mean That Much to You, which is from Neil Young’s “Old Man.” No one could see that sitting on a spine. So we went back to the magazine title, but used “son” thinking it was a stronger word than “kid.”
Your first memoir, Lads, was about your experiences working for Maxim and Details magazines. Do you see Cocaine’s Son’s as a sequel of sorts or its own beast?
Both books grew out of essays for other publications. What connects the books is the presence of my father and me in them, but the tone of each book is different. With Lads (Villard, 2004), I was writing about my lifestyle being totally disconnected from the magazines I was working for. It was more comedic and ironic. Cocaine’s Son has some dark comedy at times, but the subject matter and the approach are different.
The Itzkoff family could have easily fallen apart. Your mother almost divorced your dad at one point, and you considered totally severing ties. What kept you together?
From my experience, you can’t really ever walk away as long as there is one person in the equation who still wants to keep things together and makes an effort to do so. Different people played that role at different times. It was often my mother. It was her suggestion that my father and I go into therapy, and though it didn’t have the payoff we expected, it was beneficial and got us on the right path.
Despite everything you two went through, it sounds like the relationship with your father is good.
Absolutely. My parents now live year around in the Catskills, about 100 miles northwest of the city, and we see each other regularly and talk regularly. I would say that anybody who viewed us at any distance would see a pretty traditional, healthy family relationship.
The inevitable question: What’s your family’s reaction to the book?
The only thing makes a project like this possible is permission, and my father is pretty open about a lot of his life. That’s not to say he’s proud of a lot of things he did or goes out of his way to broadcast it. But if he were to meet you he’d volunteer a lot of this story before you even had a chance to ask him about it. He believes in telling the truth. He will tell me about things he thinks I got wrong factually, but he will not ask me to change this or that to make him look a different way.
My mother’s perspective is much different. She’s very protective of him and was concerned about me writing about him at all. She’d ask me why I need to do this and would hope that I wouldn’t continue. But they are both extremely excited that the book is done and out.
So what answer did you give your mom? Why did you need to write the book?
It’s a hard thing to explain. The point that I usually come back to with her ultimately is that I feel that the book itself is optimistic. There’s an uplifting, positive message to it. But to get to that message you have to get through difficult material that precedes it, or the ending itself has no meaning.
Cocaine’s Son: A Memoir
Villard / Jan. 18, 2011 / 9781400065721 / $24.00